Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 25, 2016

Fatima; In Order of Disappearance

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

Opening tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center is a French film titled “Fatima” that is a subdued and sensitive study of an immigrant Algerian cleaning woman trying desperately to provide both material and spiritual support for her two daughters. Unlike most narrative films, the plot does not revolve around some sensational incident such as a crime that drives the action forward. Instead, it consists of the quotidian but gripping crises that the family confronts with the mother Fatima (Soria Zeroual) soldiering on.

One daughter has just entered medical school and is deeply stressed by the workload. Like the children of many struggling Arab-speaking immigrants in France, Nesrine (Zita Hanrot) is the family’s hope for success even though the odds are against her. When she and her mother show up to see an apartment near medical school that Nesrine hopes to rent, the landlady takes one look at the mother’s hijab and tells them that her son forgot to give her the key–an obvious excuse for refusing to rent to Muslims. As evidenced by the racist attacks taking place over the “burkini”, France is a hostile environment for such immigrants.

Nesrine’s younger sister is a rebellious fifteen-year-old named Souad (Kenza Noah Aïche) who hates school, her teachers and authority in general. She resents her mother for her traditional ways and is ashamed of her lowly status as a cleaning lady. Above all, she seeks normalcy—something that is out of reach for most working class North Africans.

As the film’s title would indicate, it is mostly a portrait of Fatima who is played by Soria Zeroual with such a degree of naturalism that you might be tempted to believe that she is really a cleaning lady. Just after writing this sentence, I googled the actress’s name and discovered that this is actually what she was. Her amazing performance comes partly from her lived experience and partly from the obvious skills of director Philippe Fauchon, the son of a French soldier who had married an Algerian pied noir woman.

The screenplay for “Fatima” is based on “Prayer to the Moon”, a collection of poems, thoughts and other pieces of writing by Fatima Elayoubi, who came to France and worked as a cleaning lady. Her experience was so close to that of the actress who portrayed her that the net effect is seeing them as the same person, a universal symbol of people caught between two worlds, oppressed by economic circumstances, and seeking nothing more than a decent life for their children. As such, the film is about as moving an evocation of immigrant life as you can see this or any other year.

“In Order of Disappearance” is a Norwegian film that opens tomorrow at the Sunshine Cinema 5 in New York that is utterly without social or political significance but vastly entertaining. Directed by Hans Petter Moland, it stars veteran Swedish actor Stellan John Skarsgård as Nils, the owner of a fleet of snow plows in the far north of the country that is essential to removing what looks like the blizzard of the century on practically a daily basis.

In the first few minutes of the film, his son who works as a baggage clerk at a local airport gets abducted by drug dealers who mistakenly believe that he is in cahoots with another worker who has been a cog in their cocaine smuggling machine. After they learn that he has stolen a large part of their latest shipment, they force the two into their car and kill Nils’s son while the other man escapes. In order to throw the cops off their trail, they overdose Nils’s son with heroin in order to make it seem that he was only a junkie. When Nils shows up at the morgue to identify the body, he is told that his son accidentally killed himself through an overdose. He tells them, “My son was not a drug addict”, thus setting into motion a story that is nominally a somber tale about revenge.

Defying expectations, this is not a typical tale of a father taking on killers heroically after the fashion of Charles Bronson. It is instead a black comedy of the sort that Quentin Tarantino was once capable of making. It has Nils executing one gangster after another but often played for laughs. If you’ve seen “Pulp Fiction” and remember how Bruce Willis blasted a surprised John Travolta with his own gun as he came out of the toilet after taking a dump, you’ll get an idea of what “In Order of Disappearance” is like but ten times funnier, at times evoking a Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoon.

Performances are top-notch, especially from Bruno Ganz, another very fine veteran actor from Germany who played Hitler in “Downfall”. He is the godfather of a rival Albanian drug gang that gets into a turf war with the men Nils is after. The showdown between the two gangs will remind you of the climax of “Yojimbo” or “A Fistful of Dollars” that was based on Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

Highly recommended to get your mind off the Trump and Clinton campaigns and all the other disasters afflicting the human race.

 

August 12, 2016

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Filed under: feminism,Film — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

Opening today at the Village East theater in NY and the Arclight in Los Angeles, “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is as the title indicates a documentary that consists entirely of interviews with women from Missouri who have been forced to get an abortion in Illinois because of restrictions in their own state. Under the impact of conservative legislators, Missouri only has one abortion clinic now and forces women to go through a 72-hour waiting period before undergoing the procedure and does not even make an exception for rape or incest.

Although Republican Party legislators justified passing the law in September 2011 on the basis that it would facilitate reflection on the part of the pregnant woman about going through with an abortion, the real impact is economic coercion. Such laws, which exist also in Utah and South Dakota, force women to travel long distances and take time off from work to reach a clinic. Right now the only one is in St. Louis. Since economic hardship is one of the main driving forces behind getting an abortion, the loss of a couple of day’s work can create havoc for women, especially those without a partner. The anti-abortion movement cynically calculates that some women will decide to have the baby and give it up for adoption, a hollow victory except if your belief system rests on the idea that heaven and hell exist, with angels, devils and all the rest.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, who hails from Missouri but lives now in California, filmed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Illinois. Her interviews were not only with women from Missouri who have made the trek but with a wide range of women connected to the clinic in various capacities. That includes not only the medical staff but the security guard, an African-American female who can barely contain her disgust with the protestors who haunt the clinic, including a Black pastor who she gives hell to. As is the case with most of these clinics outside of sinfully enlightened metropolitan centers like Manhattan, the fetus fetishists, who get equal time in Tragos’s film, are a permanent fixture like a chronic disease such as herpes. The Illinois clinic relies on a volunteer group of escorts who help the anxious women make it past the screaming, beady-eyed zealots.

Tragos’s emphasis is on the “stories” as she makes clear in the press notes:

I have met women contemplating abortion who have tremendous potential and who deserve dignity and respect: a student who wants to stay in school; a mother who is doing the best she can to care for the children she already has; a woman who is carrying a fetus that she very much wants, but would never live outside the womb; a young mother who believes abortion is wrong, but whose life is in danger if she carries her pregnancy to term. I have met a woman who stands on a street corner and prays, who believes that “God is amassing an army” to save babies in utero. As sharp as her rhetoric is, she is lonely and welcomes conversation and companionship on a cold winter day. I have met a woman frustrated by the lack of unity in the reproductive rights movement, who desperately wants to change the conversation but feels powerless to have an impact. I have met the pregnant doctor who performs abortions, despite danger and threats.

My only regret is that the film lacked commentary from experts who have been tracking the origins and goals of anti-abortion movement. It is understandable that Tragos’s had a specific focus but the viewer is left wondering what forces are assembling nationally to ensure that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land.

For example, the structure of the film excluded a discussion of the campaign against Planned Parenthood that became front page news a year ago when secretly made videos supposedly proved that fetal tissues were being sold for profit. So outrageous was the right wing intervention that even Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, said that Planned Parenthood was innocent of the charges being made against it.

To give you an idea of the bogus credentials of Rand Paul, who is beloved by some “anti-imperialists”, he had legislation prepared in advance to defund Planned Parenthood. Who knows? Maybe he has been inspired by Putin’s Russia that has banned all abortions after 12 weeks.

As might be expected, Hillary Clinton was a staunch defender of Planned Parenthood but given the steady erosion of abortion rights over the past eight years, one wonders how much confidence we can have in an administration correctly understood by both her and her critics on the left as a continuation of the status quo.

Clinton’s VP candidate is the first concern. Timothy Kaine, a Catholic, is anti-abortion but supposedly respects the Roe V. Wade decision. That is a bit hard to square with his past support for the Hyde amendment that bans federal funding for abortions. On July 27th he changed his mind and said he would support its repeal. For those concerned about how politicians change positions in the way some people change a hairdo, keep in mind that in 2012 Hillary Clinton, who has somehow earned the reputation of being for regime change in Syria, stated that the rebels were basically al-Qaeda.

Like Clinton, Barack Obama makes all sorts of statements about a woman’s right to choose but somehow that didn’t inspire him to issue an executive order that would have made it possible for federally funded humanitarian aid agencies to provide abortions to women raped in zones of conflict. The Helms amendment of 1987 excluded such a possibility but Obama could have easily superseded it. Sierra Sippel of CHANGE issued this statement: “As long as President Obama continues to walk away from women raped in conflict, his legacy on gender equality is incomplete. To remain silent and fail to act is unconscionable, deadly and damages his legacy.” I would quibble with this. As far as I am concerned, it is entirely consistent with his legacy.

August 9, 2016

Homage to Abbas Kiarostami, part one

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Introduction

Abbas Kiarostami

Jean-Luc Godard has said: “Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” According to Martin Scorsese, “Kiarostami represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” When these words are quoted at Kiarostami, he winces most charmingly. “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead,” he says.

That’s from the April 16, 2005 Guardian. Since Kiarostami died on the fourth of July this year, it seems appropriate to now state one’s admiration—not that I would put myself in the same league as Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese.

For reasons I can’t quite pin down, my discovery of Kiarostami came fairly late in life. I have been a cinephile since 1961 and began writing film reviews as a member of New York Film Critics Online about 20 years ago but saw my first film by the Iranian director and screenwriter only two years ago when I reviewed “The Wind Will Carry Us” for CounterPunch. Jeff St. Clair titled the review “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” and the answer to that rhetorical question was answered positively in my article.

“The Wind Will Carry Us” had been shown in a revival of the 1999 film and I had attended a press screening. In my review I wrote:

The sense of wonderment does not come from characters and objects defying the natural order but from their own unique relationship to the natural order so at odds from the film’s major character, a sophisticated documentary filmmaker from Tehran who has come to a tiny mountainside village populated by Kurds. They live as they have lived for hundreds of years, tending their herds of cattle and goats, while he is tuned into the latest technologies including a cell phone. The running gag of this bone-dry comedy is his need to get into his Land Rover to scale a nearby hilltop to receive an in-coming call whenever his cell phone rings. By contrast, communications in the village are strictly from one windowsill to the next.

If most of my readers live outside of New York where such revivals are commonplace, I can reassure you that while the “latest technologies” might have thwarted the character in Kiarostami’s film, who was arguably a stand-in for himself, they fortunately make it possible for you to see “The Wind Will Carry Us” and just about every major work by the World’s Most Talented Film-maker as I have done over the past week. They can be seen either on commercial venues like Hulu and Amazon or on free outlets like Youtube and Daily Motion. The goal of the series of articles that follow this introduction will be to acquaint you with the art films of a deservedly acclaimed artist as if you were in a cyberspace equivalent of the art theaters that flourished in New York in the early 1960s when each week a new film by Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray, Buñuel, Antonioni, Visconti or Truffaut premiered.

Part of the explanation for so much of Kiarostami’s work being available as VOD is his existence in a kind of limbo for most of his career. While never persecuted like his colleague Jafar Panahi, the Islamic Republic did not allow his films to be screened for a ten-year period. With no apparent interest in exploiting them commercially, Iran never stepped in to demand that the films be removed from Youtube.

Despite the restrictions he had to put up with in Iran, Kiarostami always felt rooted in the country and never made polemical films like Panahi. That being said, he was deeply concerned about social inequality and the clerical authoritarianism that helped to sustain it despite the “anti-imperialist” image the mullahs tried to cultivate.

This side of Kiarostami might not have been obvious in the films he directed but it was so in the screenplay he wrote for “Crimson Gold”, a film directed by Panahi. In my 2004 review, I referred to the main character Hussein, a pizza deliveryman who was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war suffering from poverty and PTSD:

Although Hussein never articulates his feelings, we can see Teheran through his sorrowful eyes. One night on his way to a pizza delivery, he is accosted by cops and soldiers at the front door, who tell him to wait there until their operation is finished. They are lying in wait for affluent people going to a party on the third floor where alcohol is being served and where unmarried couples are dancing. This is against the law in the Islamic republic. The cops have no regard for Hussein, who will not be paid and who will have to wait until the early hours of the morning to leave the scene. He strikes up a conversation with a fifteen-year-old soldier from the countryside who has lied about his age in order to find a job in the army. The entire scene is a paradigm of the brutal class realities of contemporary Iran and practically a cry for sweeping change.

Like other directors operating outside the commercial dictates of Hollywood, Kiarostami can be seen as a link to the golden age of the art film on a number of levels. To start with, his works are imbued with a humanism that has virtually disappeared over the past 25 years. This is not just true of Hollywood but Western Europe as well, which has tended to compete with it on its own terms. For example, French directors have become enamored of Tarantino type violence even though its origins were in Hong Kong gangster films that he was recycling. By the time the gunplay conventions reached France, they had lost their initial impact and grown stale. In the 44 films made by Kiarostami, there is not a single act of violence and the closest we come to seeing one is a rock thrown through the window of an elderly professor by a young man who suspects him of sleeping with his fiancée, a call girl. It is so unexpected that you almost feel inclined to duck and cover like the professor.

For the most part, a Kiarostami film consists of people talking to each other, and frequently inside a car. By daring to keep a conversation going on for ten minutes or longer, he defies the conventions of Hollywood and most independent films as well where dialog is limited to two or three minutes and functions mainly as exposition. A classic example would be a scene from a Scorsese film in which the characters argue with each other about one thing or another. The tension of the dialog is designed to set up the physical confrontation that is almost inevitable.

In a Kiarostami film, the conversations are often about the universal questions of life and death and that have no other purpose except to get us thinking about how they relate to our own existence. In “A Taste of Cherry”, a depressed Tehran upper-class man drives around the outskirts of the city trying to find a man willing to help him kill himself—or more exactly to throw dirt in the hole in the ground where he will take an overdose of tranquilizers the night before. The film consists nearly entirely of conversations in the main character’s car as he tries to persuade various men he picks up to serve as his assistant with a sizable payment. One, a clerical student from Afghanistan, refuses insistently even though he is impoverished. They argue about how the Quran views suicide and fail to agree.

The humanism of Kiarostami’s films can obviously be traced to the work of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray who had compassion for the lives of ordinary people like the peasants in “Seven Samurai” or in the Apu trilogy. Kiarostami preferred to work with nonprofessional actors who he claimed kept him honest, especially when they were cast as the kind of characters they were in real life. He stated that they would stubbornly resist saying things that were not likely to come out of their mouths. In “Through the Olive Trees”, a film within a film, a character based on Kiarostami himself is making a film about the impact of the 1990 earthquake on the lives of rural Iranians. He has a bit actor named Hossein (actually a rural Iranian working class man) being filmed repeatedly in one take after another because he keeps screwing up. He is supposed to say that he lost 65 relatives in the earthquake but it always comes out as 25. The director, driven to distraction, asks him why keeps refusing to say 65. The answer: “Sir, I only lost 25 relatives.”

As I watched one Kiarostami film after another this week, it became clear to me that not only was he the greatest director of our generation but a major influence on other important directors in the region, including one who I consider as on the same level—Turkey’s Bilge Nuri Ceylan. Ceylan and Kiarostami’s films tend to have the same venues, the various film festivals in places like Cannes or New York and the art houses with their limited distribution. Like Kiarostami, Ceylan has uncompromising artistic integrity and an affinity for the common people of his country. The influence can also be seen in the work of Jano Rosebiani, a Kurdish director whose “Jiyan” (Life) echoes “The Wind Will Carry Us” through its interaction between an educated and urbane Kurd (like the director) who visits Halabja with the intention of building an orphanage. Is there a common thread that unites Iranian, Turkish and Kurdish films such as these? I would argue that it has a lot to do with the dislocations of traditional societies under the impact of globalization that is common to the three nations.

I must introduce a note of caution in watching a Kiarostami film. If you are expecting a plot that has a logical ending that conveys some eternal verity, you will be disappointed. As a screenwriter who directs his own work, he avoids pat narratives that operate off audience reflexes built up by a lifetime of watching genre films. He even shuns film scores since they are meant to stroke one’s emotions during the course of a film in a manipulative fashion. He will have none of that. For Kiarostami, watching a film is a kind of interactive process in which you are practically challenged to supply your own conclusion.

For example, in the conclusion to “Through the Olive Trees”, when the aforementioned Hossein is trailing after the woman of his dreams through a grove of olive trees to persuade her to marry him, we watch them becoming smaller and smaller as they move out of the range of the camera toward the horizon. At the last minute, Hossein bolts away from the object of his affection and begins running toward the camera at full tilt. Is he running away from her because he is crushed by her refusal or is he ecstatic because she has said yes? That is up to you to figure out.

It is not just the conclusion to his films that is open to interrogation. There is an ambiguity that prevails through almost his entire work that prevents you from settling into preconceived ideas about how the characters are expected to act. It is often the case that the characters are not clear themselves about their innermost feelings. This gives the films a kind of contradictory momentum that keeps you off-balance and unsure about what will happen next.

The complexity of a Kiarostami film is related to the modernist sensibility that was general throughout the New Wave of the 1950s and 60s that came relatively late to Iran. It is akin to Godard but filtered through the sensibility of Iran’s religious and artistic environment. Over the next few weeks, I will expand on this in an attempt to pay homage to one of the greatest filmmakers of the past half-century.

August 8, 2016

From an interview with Abbas Kiarostami

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:13 pm

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BC: It seems difficult for many artists today to treat individual psychological truth, sociopolitical reality, and artistic form with equal seriousness, with equal commitment. Is that a reasonable statement?

AK: I completely agree. As I have implied, moviemakers are always being pushed to focus on the excitation and manipulation of the audience. The question to which I don’t know the answer is whether or not the viewer wants to be manipulated. I don’t know anyone who says, “Instead of letting me see reality, manipulate me. I would prefer it.” This is an illness that comes from somewhere in society—maybe from escapist movies themselves.

BC: You yourself are choosing to make films about ordinary people, poor people. That itself is quite rare today.

AK: I get my material from all around me. When I leave my house in the morning, those ordinary people are the ones I come into contact with. In my entire life I have never met a star—somebody I have seen on the screen. And I believe that any artist finds his material in what’s around him. Human beings and their problems are the most important raw material for any film.

BC: How can film art in general contribute to the lives of ordinary people?

AK: The biggest impact of cinema on the viewer is that it allows his imagination to take flight. There are two possible results of this. Perhaps it will make his ordinary, day-to-day life more bearable. On the other hand, it may result in his day-to-day life seeming so bad to him that, as a result of his newfound awareness, he may decide to change his life.

BC: A related question. Humanity has suffered a great deal in the past and continues to suffer. How do artists treat such a situation honestly without surrendering to fatalism or pessimism?

AK: It’s a difficult question and I cannot answer precisely how artists do that, but the ones who do are the artists, the ones who accomplish the task of turning that painful experience of humanity into art Without becoming cynical. Making it possible for everyone to get some pleasure out of pain, making beauty out of ugliness or desolation. And the painful experience of human-ity, be it in Iran, Africa, or the United States, isn’t going to change any time soon. In my relatively short lifetime, I haven’t experienced a reduction of injustice anywhere, let alone in my own country. And never mind a solution to the problem of injustice. People keep referring to the “global village,” but in Africa, in Uganda, I watched as parents put the corpses of their children in boxes, tied them to the backs of bicycles, and pedaled away—barefoot. I’m quoting an author 1 don’t know who said that, by the twenty-first century, humanity will only be four years old. I think that applies. Humanity today, in 2005, is just about at the stage of a four-year-old. So we’ll have to wait a long time before humanity even reaches the maturity of an adolescent.

BC: Doesn’t the future of cinema also depend on an improvement in the social and political atmosphere?

AK: 1 don’t think so. I actually sometimes think that, at least in my country, art has grown the most when the social situation has been the worst. It seems to me that artists are a compensatory mechanism, a defense mechanism in those kinds of unfavorable circumstances.

July 28, 2016

Cameraperson; Homo Sapiens

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Under consideration in this review are two documentaries that defy conventional expectations even for a genre not particularly known for commercialism. The first is “Cameraperson”, which is basically excerpts from documentaries in which Kirsten Johnson served as lead cameraperson, none lasting more than ten minutes or so and often without providing any kind of context for the excerpted film’s overall design. Although often mystifying, it is never without interest. The second is “Homo Sapiens”, a film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter that has an ironic title given that not a single human being is seen throughout the film. Indeed, it consists of nothing but scenes from abandoned cities and towns across the world and as such has a dystopian quality far more disturbing than any Mad Max movie since it is all very real. I can recommend both films to students of film, which does not mean that you are enrolled at NYU or UCLA but that you have a taste for the offbeat and especially those works that are trying to get to the heart of the human condition in a world coming apart at the seams.

Kirsten Johnson’s film was the closing night feature at the 2016 New Directors/New Films Festival at Lincoln Center and will now open on September 9th at the IFC in New York. Johnson’s film includes excerpts from 24 films over the years, most of which would be of interest to those who follow my reviews and some of which I have covered including “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Citizenfour”. While most of her work is on such political films, there are also a number that are almost impossible to categorize including “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs Gravity” that is foreshadowed by the strange sound of some heavy object hitting something soft and pliant, like a 50-pound bag of potatoes being dropped on a mattress from the top of a five story building—the kind of stunt David Letterman used to favor. It turns out that the sound is from dancers falling on a cushioned platform from about a 20-foot-high platform in line with choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s envelope pushing aesthetic.

Johnson has risked her life making films in war-torn locales, including Bosnia, Darfur and Liberia. In conversation with friends she made in Bosnia who were principals in “I Came to Testify”, she can barely hold back tears. This is obviously a woman who made films for the same reason I got involved in radical politics. It was not for the money.

In addition to the excerpts from the documentaries and her reminiscences with the people featured in them, a large part of the film involves her in conversation with her mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. In trying to help her mother retrieve lost memories, she evokes the overall theme of the film, which is the importance of film and photography in enshrining the past.

Johnson is most eloquent about the ambivalent feelings she has about her role:

The people I film are in immediate and often desperate material need, but I offer little to nothing material.

I can and will leave a place I film (a war, a refugee camp, etc.) when the people I film cannot.

I traffic in hope without the ability to know what will happen in the future.

I ask for trust, cooperation and permission without knowing where the filming experience will lead the subject.

I alter the balance of power by my presence and act on behalf of one side or another in a conflict.

My work requires trust, demands intimacy and entails total attention. To both me and the people I film, it often feels like a friendship or family, but it is something different.

I know little about how the images I shoot will be used in the future and can not control their distribution or use.

My work can change the way my subject is perceived by the people who surround him/her and can impact reputation or safety for years into the future.

I follow stories the director I work for does not need and/or want me to follow.

I fail to see or follow stories the director I work for hopes I will follow.

One of these points resonates with my own feelings about a life spent trying to make a revolution in the USA: I traffic in hope without the ability to know what will happen in the future.

I first encountered the work of Nikolaus Geyrhalter almost exactly 10 years ago. His “Our Daily Bread” lacked narration and simply depicted visually the process of food production in fields, barns, slaughterhouses, etc. From my review:

The images of “Our Daily Bread” will linger in the viewer’s mind like a bad dream. Two men and overalls are attending to a cow with a gaping hole in its side, out of which they extract new born calves. We do not know why the animal is not allowed to give birth in the normal fashion, but have to assume that this born of scientific necessity and the need to maximize profits. Chickens are hurtled at high speed on conveyor belts into awaiting crates. When one falls off, a worker picks it up by its feet and throws it into another carton as if it were a plastic part. Indeed, one can only conclude that in order to survive on such a job, it becomes necessary to become utterly detached from what you are doing. If you have any sense of compassion for the animal kingdom, it will only get in the way of performing your job. When one is paid to slit the throats of chickens 8 hours a day, it is best not to think about what you are doing.

“Homo Sapiens” is also a bad dream of sorts, even though not so nearly as shocking as “Our Daily Bread”. There is no killing as such in the film, only the aftermath so to speak—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 and my wife’s brother-in-law 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.

In the press notes for “Homo Sapiens”, Geyrhalter describes his goal in making such a film:

  • Homo Sapiens is a film about the finiteness and fragility of human existence and the end of the industrial age, and what it means to be a human being.
  • What will remain of our lives after we’re gone?
  • Empty spaces, ruins, cities increasingly overgrown with vegetation, crumbling asphalt: the areas we currently inhabit, though humanity has disappeared. Now abandoned and decaying, gradually reclaimed by nature after being taken from it so long ago.
  • Homo Sapiens is an ode to humanity as seen from a possible future scenario.

“Homo Sapiens” opens tomorrow at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. Highly recommended for those with a taste for the unconventional and a shared belief with the director that we are coming to the end of the industrial age—one hopefully that ushers in a New Age based on the rational use of resources and technology to serve human needs rather than private profit.

July 18, 2016

Open Your Eyes

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 10:19 pm

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This is the news release for a 40-minute documentary I just watched and found deeply moving. The film begins by stating that there are 40,000,000 blind people around the world today and that 90 percent are in poor Third World countries like Nepal, where the elderly husband and wife regain their sight from an operation funded by the Seva Foundation. I found the film of more than routine interest because I have cataracts in both eyes like the couple but can rely on Medicare to pay for the surgery when my time has come. Scheduling information is in the press release and I urge you to take advantage of your HBO subscription since it will be about the best thing you see on the premium channel this month.


For Immediate Release

HEARTWARMING DOCUMENTARY OPEN YOUR EYES, FOLLOWING NEPALESE SPOUSES ON A REMARKABLE ODYSSEY TO RESTORE THEIR SIGHT, DEBUTS JULY 18, EXCLUSIVELY ON HBO

Nearly 40 million people worldwide are blind, mostly from cataracts, and 90% of them live in the poorest countries. Yet most cataract blindness can be cured by simple surgery implanting an intraocular lens that once cost $500 and is now available for less than $2.

OPEN YOUR EYES follows Manisara and Durga, an aging couple from the remote Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, as they embark on a transformative odyssey to regain the sight they lost over the years by undergoing this life-changing procedure. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky (HBO’s Oscar®-nominated “The Final Inch”), this inspiring documentary debuts MONDAY, JULY 18 (7:30-8:10 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO Other HBO playdates: July 20 (9:00 a.m., 4:35 p.m. ET only, 5:00 p.m. PT only), 24 (11:05 a.m.) and 28 (noon) HBO2 playdates: July 21 (8:00 p.m.), 25 (2:10 p.m., 12:40 a.m.) and 30 (11:30 a.m.)

The documentary will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand. In remote Nepal, many hillside farmers’ eyes slowly turn milky white as they lose their eyesight from exposure to a lifetime of harsh sun. A team of resourceful Nepali eye specialists combing the area finds Manisara and Durga, who have been married 50 years, and urges them to come to a distant city for a chance to see again. But Manisara is skeptical. Only when her youngest granddaughter plops onto her lap does she decide to move forward.

Filmed over the course of three days and set against the backdrop of the breathtaking Himalayan Mountains, OPEN YOUR EYES follows their extraordinary journey to see again, as Manisara and Durga are carried and guided through narrow paths and down winding roads, all the while facing the great unknown with courage, grace and hope. Finally, the couple arrives at an eye hospital in Palpa, which offers free cataract surgeries once a month through support from the Seva Foundation. Performing the surgery is Dr. Gurung, who has traveled from Kathmandu. Reflecting on what could be, Manisara says, “What would make me truly happy? I must tell you, I will be happy to see the world again.”

Husband and wife are laid beside each other for the operations, and in mere minutes, intraocular lenses have been inserted and Manisara and Durga’s eyes have been bandaged. All in all, 54 surgeries will be completed successfully that day, with each procedure taking around six minutes. The original title song of OPEN YOUR EYES was composed by Salman Ahmad and features guest vocals by iconic musician and humanitarian Peter Gabriel. In addition to the Oscar®-nominated “The Final Inch,” director Irene Taylor Brodsky’s HBO credits include the upcoming “Beware the Slenderman,” as well as “Saving Pelican 895,” “One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp” and the Peabody Award-winning “Hear and Now.”

Producer Larry Brilliant co-founded Seva Foundation, the international NGO responsible for restoring sight to four million blind people globally. He is also chairman of the board of the Skoll Global Threats Fund and was one of the leaders of the World OPEN YOUR EYES – 3 Health Organization’s successful smallpox eradication program. OPEN YOUR EYES is directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky; executive producer, Laurene Powell Jobs; producer, Larry Brilliant; produced by Irene Taylor Brodsky and Sophie Harris; original music by Salman Ahmad.

For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

July 16, 2016

Lo and Behold

Filed under: computers,Film — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

At the age of 74, Werner Herzog has just made his 38th feature film, a documentary about the Internet titled “Lo and Behold Reveries of the Connected World”. The German director shows no sign of the age-related decline that has affected so many of his peers such as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Of course, given the fact that Allen hasn’t made a watchable film in over 35 years makes one speculate that he has never lived up to his accolades to start with.

Unlike the mega-celebrity from Hollywood, Herzog belongs to that rarefied world of “foreign” or “independent” films that inevitably get screened in art houses and rarely get nominated for Academy Awards. In other words, he makes the sort of film I live for, starting with his narrative film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” that I saw in 1977 and that made me a devoted fan. It starred Klaus Kinski, a member of Herzog’s repertory company at the time, as a deranged conquistador determined to find the lost city of El Dorado to seize control over its legendary riches, even if it cost the lives of every man in his expedition. In the final gripping scene, he is the sole survivor adrift on the Amazon River with monkeys overrunning his raft. It was not a stretch for a Marxist like me to see it as a critique of colonialism even though 7 years later I would be dismayed to discover that he had made a TV documentary taking up the cause of the Miskitos in Nicaragua. It was only 10 years later that I figured out that the Atlantic Coast Indians had legitimate grievances and that Herzog was right to make such a film.

If there is one thing you can predict about a Werner Herzog film, it is that it will be unpredictable. “Lo and Behold” is nominally a series of interviews with pioneer computer scientists like UCLA’s Leonard Kleinrock but refracted through Herzog’s off-kilter sensibility that runs through the film like a black thread. For example, upon the completion of his interview with Ted Nelson, who anticipated the rise of the Worldwide Web, he allows Nelson to take his photo like a fan—a gesture that defies conventional documentary techniques to say the least.

Herzog is obviously fascinated by the computer scientists who come across as gee-whiz techno-optimists who clash with his own darkly absurdist vision of life even as he shares their breathless testimonies to the spectacular rise of the Internet. It is reminiscent of his near-obsession with the German-American jet fighter pilot Dieter Dengler who was shot down over Vietnam. In the 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”, he describes how Dengler became obsessed with flying after seeing Allied fighter-bombers destroying his German village during WWII.

If you’ve seen that film, you will understand why Herzog seems just as fascinated with Elon Musk whose SpaceX company is building rockets that are intended to create a colony on Mars. Like Dengler, flight brings Musk closer to eternity or at least a taste of it. In explaining the need for colonizing Mars, Musk describes it as a hedge against something “going wrong” on Earth, the result of either a manmade or natural disaster. Will we have an Internet on Mars, Herzog playfully asks. With a cold smile, Musk says that we will after sending up a few satellites to circle the planet. One can hardly escape feeling that we are in the company of someone who would have made Aguirre blanch.

The film does not limit itself to the Internet. It is also devoted to displaying the latest in robotics and interviewing the geeks who work in the field. We meet Joydeep Biswas, a Carnegie-Mellon engineer who displays  six inch tall soccer-playing robots that dart about a miniature field scoring goals against each other. He has a particular fondness for robot number 8 that seems to be just a cut above the others. After Herzog asks Biswas if he loves that robot, the engineer grins sheepishly and admits that he does. It is a priceless moment.

If most of the film is devoted to the wonders of the Internet, Herzog makes sure to illustrate its dark side. He interviews the Catsouras family at their home in Orange County, near Los Angeles. The father, mother and three teen daughters sit around their dining table as the father describes the trauma they faced after a fourth daughter died in an auto accident in 2006. When a photograph taken by state troopers leaked out to the Internet showing her nearly decapitated head, the family was horrified by the photo that had gone viral and their inability to suppress it after a judge ruled that a dead person does not have the right to privacy. Mrs. Catsouras tells Herzog that the Internet was the anti-Christ to her.

As the conversation with Catsouras family over these grizzly matters transpires, your attention is fixated both on them and three trays of baked goods sitting on the table in front of them. The contrast between the muffins, cakes and cookies and their woeful experience could hardly be more striking. It makes you wonder if they prepared the goodies for the film crew and that Herzog decided to leave them on the table just for their macabre counterpoint to the matters under discussion. I am sure he did.

After the press screening, I chatted briefly with NY Times film critic A.O. Scott about “Lo and Behold”. He was a bit surprised that I did not have much to say about Herzog’s utter lack of attention to the frequently aired concerns about the political implications of the Internet’s explosive growth. There is nothing about the monopolistic tendencies of Jeff Bezos, the NSA’s ability to snoop on our emails or phone calls, the threat of cyberwarfare, and the like. Scott was right, of course, but I doubt that Herzog had much interest in making the kind of film that Laura Poitras would have made. Herzog is primarily interested in human psychology, and particularly what some might consider abnormal psychology. With his command of cinematic techniques gathered over nearly four decades and a sense of the absurd matched by very few filmmakers today, Werner Herzog marches to the tune of his own drummer. “Lo and Behold” opens at the Lincoln Center Film Society on August 19th and better theaters everywhere. Highly recommended.

 

July 8, 2016

At the Fork

Filed under: animal rights,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in NYC and the Laemmle in Los Angeles is a documentary titled “At the Fork” that makes the case for alternatives to profit-driven, industrialized and inhumane food production. As it happens, one of the interviewees is Mark Bittman who has written books and articles promoting the humane treatment of farm animals, many of which have appeared in the NY Times over the years. It is therefore something of an irony that no review of “At the Fork” appeared there in keeping with a recent decision to end the paper’s obligation as “newspaper of record” to cover all film premieres in NY. You will, however, find a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”, a film that Manohla Dargis describes as follows:

Two idiots need dates; they get them.

That’s about all you need to know about the aggressively stupid “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” a would-be comedy about a pair of imbeciles who are best understood as representations of the enduring, marrow-deep contempt that some moviemakers have always had for their audiences.

So a thoughtful documentary about food production gets overlooked while one exhibiting “marrow-deep contempt” for audiences makes the cut. I would argue that the failure to review “At the Fork”, the 95 percent of farming based on the industrial model, and the inclusion of a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” are all joined at the hip and apt symbols of the Decline and Fall of American Civilization—such as it was.

“At the Fork” begins with a barbecue at the home of director John Papola’s father with heaps of spare ribs cooking on the grill. He explains that meat is king at his Italian family’s household even though for his vegetarian wife Lisa it is anathema. This leads the couple to conduct an odyssey across the USA in search of farmers who try as much as possible to create a setting for pigs, chickens and cows that are as close to their natural habitat as possible even though their ultimate fate is not death by old age but a slaughterhouse.

This ethical contradiction is addressed most cogently by Temple Grandin, one of America’s leading authorities of humane treatment of farm animals who has garnered attention for her achieving this status despite suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Grandin advocated and designed a slaughterhouse that could be housed on a ranch, thus saving animals from the deeply traumatic long-distance travel on trailer trucks. Key to their effectiveness is a lengthy, circular ramp that has been proven to be less stressful for cattle that are not used to confinement.

The farmers and ranchers who operate such facilities are a remarkable breed with a keen sense of the ethical and economic factors that naturally collide with each other. In the case of egg farms, you get to the heart of the choices that must be made. In the typical egg farm based exclusively on profit, the chickens are confined in cages and fed through automated conveyor belts. It is the Fordist model applied to living creatures. But unlike a fender or a steering wheel, a chicken is a sentient being that suffers every single minute it is in such hellholes. By contrast, free range chickens that lay eggs in a setting close to that of their ancestors from millennia ago enjoy their lives while being a source of nutritious food. (Recently Bittman has made a strong case for eggs being a protein-rich foodstuff with very little risk of bad cholesterol.) A carton of eggs based on the industrial model cost about $2.50 while the free range type cost from 8 to 9 dollars.  In a different economic system, it is likely that the humane choice might come down to $5 but it would be worth the extra money just to have good karma.

If you have doubts that it matters much that a “dumb” chicken suffers one way or another, you might be better off going to see “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” anyhow. But if you are sitting on the fence, there is plenty to put you in the humane treatment camp especially the terrible fate that awaits pigs on the assembly line of Smithfield and other mega-corporations. The film takes you inside an immense shed where female pigs are confined in gestation cages. The Humane Society, whose executive director is interviewed extensively in the documentary, condemns their cruelty on their website:

Pigs are among the smartest animals on Earth. Studies show that they are more intelligent than dogs and even some primates: They can play simple video games, teach each other and even learn names. They also form elaborate, cooperative social groups and feel fear, pain and stress.

Yet on U.S. factory farms, where sows are kept in row after row after row of gestation crates throughout their pregnancies, they’re also among the most abused. The 2-foot-wide cages are so narrow, the animals cannot even turn around. They chew on the bars, wave their heads incessantly back and forth, or lie on the pavement in an apparent state of dejection. Nearly immobilized, the pigs spend months staring ahead, waiting to be fed, likely going out of their minds.

My only criticism of the film is its connection to Whole Foods that is described as a partner on its website. While the stores are certainly a superior source of food that is produced in humane conditions, its CEO John Mackey, who is an interviewee in the film, has little regard for humane conditions when it comes to human beings. In a Salon.com interview, he enunciated his libertarian beliefs:

When I was in my very early 20’s I believed that democratic socialism was a more “just” economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift…

I didn’t think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left.

While Mackey likely endorses the idea that pigs should not be confined in gestation cages, he certainly puts their welfare above that of others in similar confinement:

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, whose net worth exceeds $100 million, is a fervent proselytizer on behalf of “conscious capitalism.” A self-described libertarian, Mackey believes the solution to all of the world’s problems is letting corporations run amok, without regulation. He believes this so fervently, in fact, he wrote an entire book extolling the magnanimous virtue of the free market.

At the same time, while preaching the supposedly beneficent gospel of the “conscious capitalism,” Mackey’s company Whole Foods, which has a $13 billion and growing annual revenue, sells overpriced fish, milk, and gourmet cheeses cultivated by inmates in US prisons.

The renowned “green capitalist” organic supermarket chain pays what are effectively indentured servants in the Colorado prison system a mere $1.50 per hour to farm organic tilapia.

Colorado prisons already grow 1.2 million pounds of tilapia a year, and government officials and their corporate companions are chomping at the bit to expand production.

That’s not all. Whole Foods also buys artisinal cheeses and milk cultivated by prisoners. The prison corporation Colorado Correctional Industries has created what Fortune describes as “a burgeoning $65 million business that employs 2,000 convicts at 17 facilities.”

While I recommend “At the Fork” wholeheartedly, I hope that the director might rethink his ties to John Mackey—at least if he cares as much about human beings as he does about farm animals.

 

July 4, 2016

New York Asian Film Festival 2016

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Although the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival began on June 22nd, competing demands on my time prevented me from seeing the five screeners reviewed below until now. All are being shown starting tomorrow until July 9th, the final day of the festival. Averse as I am to film reviewing hyperbole, I can state that they are among the best narrative films I have seen this year and would be of the utmost interest to New Yorkers who tend to have confidence in my recommendations.

Inside Men; A Violent Prosecutor

These two Korean films share almost identical plots and political concerns. If you have been following my reviews of Korean films over the years, you will probably be aware that I consider the Korean film industry as a source of some of the best work being done in the world today. While made largely as pop culture influenced by Hong Kong cinema of the 70s and 80s, they have often penetrated the Deep State that rests on the four legs of anti-Communism, out-of-control Chaebols, corrupt politicians and organized crime. In other words, Korean films are one of the main sources of a badly needed critique of the country’s rotten capitalist “success” story. Koreans who see such fictional films certainly understand that they are ultimately pointing to the grim reality of a system in which 304 people died on April 16, 2014 because a ferry was allowed to operate in a deregulated system. They were victims of a conspiracy to gamble with the lives of high school students on a field trip for the sake of a fast buck.

Inside Men”, which shows tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at 8:30PM is the highest-grossing R-Rated film in South Korean history. It certainly earned the R rating from the orgies that appear throughout the film involving Chaebol executives, politicians, media moguls that make Rupert Murdoch look angelic by comparison and top officials of the country’s prosecutor’s department—their Department of Justice.

Like Elliot Ness, the incorruptible prosecutor Woo Jang‑hoon (Jo Seung-woo) is determined to prove that the men who gather regularly at a power broker’s mansion to compare dick sizes around a banquet table in the company of prostitutes are deeply implicated in a bribery scheme that has corrupted his colleagues and funneled money to a political campaign whose program favors the interests of the chaebol class rather than the country’s 99 percent.

The title refers to Woo’s partnership with a gangster named An Sang-gu (Byung-hun Lee) who worked for the cabal to cover up evidence of the cash flow between the corporate crooks and the state apparatus, including the prosecutor’s department. When he absconds with a copy of bank records that would prove the connection, mostly as way of playing one side against the other if the need ever arose, the chaebol’s hired thugs abduct him, take him to a warehouse and chop off his right hand. As an inside man with intimate knowledge of their criminal activities, An Sang-gu is just the person who could testify in court against them and bring their empire crashing down. But he has no interest in justice, only revenge. The loss of his hand has made him hunger for getting even, a theme pervasive in Korean film for a number of years now, including Park Chan-wook’s Revenge trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.)

For the first third of the film, the plot has a somewhat byzantine character as the criminal enterprise is shown in sordid detail even as it becomes somewhat difficult to keep track of the players. When the chaebol tops realize that An Sang-gu is plotting against them, they send a crew out to kill him. Even with his useless right hand, he skillfully fends them off until he is finally lying semiconscious on the ground with the head hitman advancing upon him with a brick. As the brick is about to come smashing down on his skull, prosecutor Woo Jang‑hoon comes to the rescue by smashing a bottle over the hitman’s head in the nick of time. For those fond of Asian combat choreography, this is a scene that will leave you breathless. It is also a scene that brings the two protagonists together for the first time—one searching for justice, the other revenge—and makes for a partnership that begins in acrimony and ends on a triumphant note. It is a brilliant film from beginning to end and worth putting on your calendar even if I bring news to you about it late in the game.

In “A Violent Prosecutor”, you get the same constellation of forces except in this film the prosecutor has ended up in prison when he gets too close to proving the same kind of sordid connections between the corporate bosses and the Deep State.

The film begins with environmentalists protesting against the Trump-styled construction of a hotel in the middle of a bird sanctuary. The developers send several van loads of common criminals who wear the same distinctive yellow vests as the protestors but are instructed to attack the cops at the construction site with steel rods. Like the agent provocateurs adopting the guise of anarchists in a number protests in the USA, the goal was to make the environmentalists look like out-of-control criminals.

When prosecutor Jeong-min Hwang (Byun Jae-wook) interrogates one of the agent provocateurs who has been arrested for assaulting a cop, he realizes immediately that the man knows about as much about wildlife preservation as he does about microbiology. After ordering him to strip to the waist, he derides him for pretending he is something other than a common criminal. His massive Yakuza-style tattoos are proof positive. When the man continues to deny that he is working for the developers, Jeong-min Hwang begins slapping him around in the fashion alluded to in the film’s title. Later that night when he steps out for a break, a prosecutor in cahoots with the developers comes into the interrogation room and kills the man. The next day Jeong-min Hwang is framed for the murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

As fate would have it, a con man who was part of the fake environmentalist assault on the cops ends up in the same prison. As the proverbial jailhouse lawyer, Jeong-min Hwang sees an opportunity. He will provide legal advice that will get Han Chi-won (Dong-won Kang) out of prison early in exchange for the con man becoming his inside man gathering evidence on the prosecutors who betrayed him and the corporate thugs who are destroying the country.

Like the partnership between the two lead actors in “Inside Men”, the violent prosecutor and the con man make for stirring dramatic interaction and make this film memorable. It can be seen at the School of Visual Arts movie theater at 6:15 on July 8, Friday night.

 

Mr. Six

The eponymous hero of this Chinese film is an aging reformed ex-mobster who is a mayor ex officio in a poor neighborhood in Beijing. While retaining both the glowering visage of his mobster youth and resorting occasionally to violence only when absolutely necessary, Mr. Six is mostly content to hang out on the street chatting with his neighbors and keeping an eye out for wrong-doers.

His relative serenity is interrupted when learns that his twenty-year old son Bobby is being held captive in the luxury car garage owned and operated by a platinum-haired punk named Kris whose Ferrari has been scratched intentionally by Mr. Six’s son in retaliation for a beating he received from Kris’s henchmen after being falsely accused of sleeping with his girlfriend.

Mr. Six is told by Kris that unless he comes up with a small fortune to pay for a new paint job in three days, his son will be killed. Forced to rely on his limited financial resources, he approaches old friends from his mobster youth who have become respectable businessmen and as a hedge will contact the same people to join him in a gang war with his son’s much younger captors.

Despite expectations that the film will be strictly a genre affair with flashing fists and lunging swords in abundance, it is much more about a father and son relationship with Mr. Six being forced to emerge out his mobster shell that he has been carrying around for much too long to finally bond with a son who has always felt abandoned—up until now. Mr. Six is played by veteran actor, screenwriter and director Feng Xiaogang who is one of China’s major talents. Born in 1958, he is a powerful presence in every scene and fully believable as the film’s key character. “Mr. Six” shows Thursday, 8:30PM at the School of Visual Arts.

Saving Mr. Wu

Based on the real-life abduction of celebrated Chinese TV actor Wu Ruofu, this is a taut policier that pits the cops against a gang of kidnappers led by the vicious Zhang (Qianyuan Wang). In a perfect casting touch, the actor Wu is played by Andy Lau, who has appeared in 160 films since 1982. Lau, like Feng Xiaogang, is one of the Chinese film industry’s treasures and perfectly suited for a role in which he plays an Andy Lau type character.

Tightly plotted as most films in this genre are, you see a race against time as cops try to track down the kidnapper’s hideout to rescue Mr. Wu and a hapless young man who is being held for ransom there as well. Chained together the two men manage to turn in powerful performances despite being immobile for nearly the entire length of the film. In another casting coup, Wu Ruofu plays the top cop trying to save the actor whose experience was based on his own.

Although Chinese (and more specifically Hong Kong) policiers have shown the signs of exhaustion in recent years, “Saving Mr. Wu” is a reminder that when the genre is done right, it can be bracing entertainment beyond the capability of a Hollywood that practically invented gangster movies. It can be seen on Saturday, July 9th, 4PM at the School of Visual Arts. Highly, highly recommended.

The Boys Who Cried Wolf

This very Hitchcockian Korean film was the dissertation project of Kim Jin-hwang at the Korean Academy of Film Arts and also the co-recipient of a Directors Guild Award at the 2015 Busan Film Festival.

The youthful failed actor Wan-ju has been forced to make a living as an escort for women and a kind of sidekick to socially awkward men who need help in breaking the ice with the opposite sex. It is only a way to pay the rent and to chip in for his ailing mother’s hospital expenses.

One day he is approached by a middle-aged woman on a free-lance basis to pretend that he is an eyewitness to a murder that took place in his neighborhood. At first put off by the suggestion that he will be paid to provide false witness, he finally relents out of economic desperation—a condition facing many Koreans.

Not long afterwards, he discovers that he has helped to put the wrong man behind bars and becomes committed to tracking down and identifying the real killer no matter how much the risk he faces to life and limb. At 33, director Kim Jin-hwang shows considerable talent in this psychological thriller more intent on exploring conflicted motivations rather than conforming to detective tale conventions. It has the gloomy atmosphere of “Vertigo” but without the sleuthing. It works on its own terms and joins all the other films discussed above as an experience that no American film currently being show in NYC can match. It can be seen Saturday, July 9, 2:15 PM at the School of Visual Arts.

 

June 30, 2016

Microbe and Gasoline

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

Opening at Sunshine Cinema tomorrow in New York, Michel Gondry’s “Microbe and Gasoline” is a terrific mash-up of a road movie like “Easy Rider” and the teen comedies of John Hughes done in a neo-French New Wave style. Now who can resist that? Microbe is the derisive nickname fellow students gave to Daniel, a 14-year old boy, on account of his height—or lack thereof. Gasoline is the nickname, once again derisive, given to his best friend and classmate Théo, whose clothes have such an odor, the result of tinkering on engines in his father’s junk shop.

The artifice that makes the film such a pleasure is that the dialogue of the two lead 14-year-old male characters is not written as if it came from such youthful mouths. Indeed, for the most part it is like listening to adult sophisticates in the early comic films of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut even though they are rooted in the painful experiences of young teens. This scene is typical:

Gasoline: We are totally underestimated. We can’t blossom in this lousy environment.

Microbe: Things haven’t been going our way lately.

Gasoline: In tough times, keep your head high. Don’t forget, crises produce leaders. DeGaulle in 1940. All looked lost.

Microbe: DeGaulle?

Gasoline: Yes, him. We are leaving in the darkest hours of our history, in the middle of a war that seems lost. But we must refuse to surrender.

Microbe: A war?

Gasoline: Our car is like France in 1940. Get it?

Microbe: What are you talking about?

Gasoline: I mean… Let’s finish the car. We can’t give up.

The car is their version of the Harley-Davidson that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda rode in “Easy Rider”, Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s Hudson in “On the Road”, Huckleberry Finn’s raft or any other car, boat, motorcycle or horse that men and women rode to escape from civilization in a literary genre going back to Don Quixote at least. For Microbe and Gasoline, the car is their means of escape from an oppressive high school and households just like I and so many others endured. Indeed, there is a direct link to the French New Wave that featured the counterparts of these 14-year olds. Gondry hearkens back to Truffaut’s “400 Blows” or Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” but updated for the world we live in now. The one constant is a need to break away from rules and convention.

The car in question is a tiny house-car powered by a 50cc lawnmower engine that Gasoline salvaged from a junkyard his father does business with. It is reminiscent in a way of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” that depicts the cross-country travels of an elderly WWII veteran on a lawnmower. Like Lynch’s film, the open road gives its subjects an opportunity to interact with a variety of characters including a dentist who invites the two 14-year olds to spend the night. When he asks them to show him their teeth at dinner, they become convinced that he is a psychopath bent on killing them. They jump out of his window in the middle of the night with him chasing him down the road yelling “I am only a dentist”.

“Microbe and Gasoline” was directed by Michel Gondry who has ties to American film-makers such as Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze so naturally you might expect to see a certain amount of arch, postmodernist whimsy in his latest film. It certainly was on display in “The Science of Sleep”, a 2006 film about a man whose dreams interfere with reality that I found terminally annoying. All I can say is that Gondry has found his true voice in “Microbe and Gasoline”, a film that will remind you of your own painful adolescence but will also make you feel like it was worth it in the long run.

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