Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 17, 2017

The Sunshine Makers; The Modern Jungle

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:05 pm

As I sat watching the terrific documentary “The Sunshine Makers” that opens on Friday at the Village East in New York, the phrase “Breaking Good” kept running through my mind since the film was about two men who became LSD manufacturers in the 1960s only to change the world rather than make money. Since scientists today have rediscovered the benefits of LSD, including its ability to reduce anxiety in terminal cancer patients, the two–Nick Sands and Tim Scully–were certainly on to something.

Born in 1941, Sands took mescaline 20 years later when he was a Brooklyn College undergrad. Like many people around that time (including me), psychedelics were the perfect accompaniment to Eastern religion and other forms of mysticism that appealed to many young people turned off by what Allen Ginsberg called Moloch.

This led him to become a regular at a mansion in Millbrook, New York owned by Billy Hitchcock that had become the LSD temple of Timothy Leary. Millbrook was about a half hour’s drive from Bard College and I had heard through the grapevine that Bard students had been spending time there in “psychology experiments”. Even if I had been invited to take part, I doubt that it would have interested me since my drugs of choice were marijuana and hashish that were cheap and plentiful at the time.

Eventually Sands hooked up with a Berkeley mathematical physics major named Tim Scully who was born in 1944 and just 5 months older than me. Scully became the Walter White of their operation largely on the strengths of his brilliance in all things scientific including chemistry (Wikipedia states that “In his junior year of high school, Scully completed a small linear accelerator in the school science lab (he was trying to make gold atoms from mercury) which was pictured in a 1961 edition of the Oakland Tribune.”)

I imagine that everybody who sees this film will be swept off their feet but it had a heightened resonance with me. There is a certain poignancy in seeing geezers like these reflecting on their misspent (or spent perhaps) youth as you see home movies from their youth when they were in their full bloom. Sands, an Adonis in his youth, is now an overweight and lumbering figure who still retains a glint in his eye. Scully, as rail-thin as he was in his youth, is completely bald and wrinkled. But neither man shows the slightest regret in breaking the law just as I have no regret in taking part in my own kind of lawless behavior.

I only had one experience with LSD, just two months before joining the Trotskyist movement. I went to my friend Chip’s apartment on the opposite end of the floor in my West 92nd building to drop acid while he and his wife smoked pot and served as my anchor in case things got out of hand. After swallowing a sugar cube, I didn’t notice anything happening for the first 15 minutes but then the strangest thing. A rather tacky landscape on the wall depicting a fish jumping out of a lake surrounded by mountains became—how should I put it—animated. The water began rippling and the fish kept jumping out of the water. How are you doing that, I asked Chip, positive in my mind that the painting was a “novelty” he bought in Times Square that could be activated by a remote control he had concealed in his hand. Open your hand, I demanded, let me see the remote control. When he opened both hands, I couldn’t believe it. I was hallucinating. For the next two hours, I watched what amounted to Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” on the living room walls but that was about it. It might have been a deeply spiritual experience for Sands and Scully but for me, it was just entertainment.

Sands and Scully were partners with Oswald Stanley who died in 2011. His words are heard throughout the film as are Billy Hitchcock’s but neither are seen on screen for reasons not given. Stanley is far better known than the others largely through his connections to Ken Kesey, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. When I say connection, I mean that both spiritually as well as in the more conventional drug trafficking sense.

The film also includes interviews with the women in Sands and Scully’s lives who, like them, are as rebellious as ever even if they look like your grandmother. In fact, it is the boldness and refusal to conform in all of these characters that makes this film so appealing. If the key to a successful documentary is “casting” the right people, British director Cosmo Feilding Mellen struck gold with these elder statesmen of the psychedelic revolution.

Mellen is the son of Amanda Feilding, whose family is descended from the House of Habsburg that came to England in the 14th Century. Like many in the British upper class, she became a renegade in her youth. And like Sands and Scully, she experimented with mind-altering substances in her youth and even conducted a trepanation on herself in 1970, a discredited procedure that consists of drilling a hole in your head for medical reasons. (She used a dentist’s drill.) Her goal was to see if it could affect her consciousness. Today, she is far more responsible as the founder and director of the Beckley Foundation that advocates for a more humane drug policy and investigates the use of psychoactive drugs for beneficial purposes.

In a profile on the Feildings in the London Times (behind a paywall but give me a shout if you want a copy), Cosmo reminisces on his youth:

Most kids find their parents embarrassing at some point, but it was definitely more pronounced for me. I was christened Cosmo Birdie for a start. The thing people knew about my parents was that they were druggies who drilled holes in their heads. [In her twenties, Amanda carried out the ancient practice of trepanation, which people believed could improve health and wellbeing.] As I got older, I developed a huge respect for what Mum stands for, but trust me, there was no cachet in it as a kid. She’s quite bohemian and has a pronounced posh voice. I can remember her coming to pick me up at school and shouting: “Cooee Bubba!” Not really what you want.

There will always be an England.

“The Modern Jungle” is documentary that will be shown at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on January 20th. Since I doubt that any of my readers except those living in Utah will be able to make the screening, I urge you to look for it if it opens eventually at your local art theater or on VOD.

Set in a village in southern Mexico largely populated by the Zoque Indians, it is a respectful but unsettling account of the lives of two elderly Zoques who live in rudimentary huts, a man named Juan Juarez Rodríguez and a woman named Carmen Echevarría Lopez. Their lives are circumscribed by daily routines of chopping wood for their stoves and gathering corn from nearby fields. Their lives are probably close to the ones lived by their ancestors a hundred years ago, even if it has been impinged upon by the forces of global capitalism and the Mexican landowning class. It was that class that killed Carmen’s husband 45 years before the film was made and that makes both her and Juan’s so difficult today. Even if much of the Zoque land has been swindled from beneath their feet, they still feel the pressures of landlords who would like to see them and the rest of the Zoques gone.

At first blush, I thought the film would be similar to those that I have seen in the past about Indians fending off the rich but there are some wrinkles. Juan is determined that he be paid for his services as a subject in a film that he expects to make money. In several cringe-worth scenes he haggles with director Charles Fairbanks over his pay. It will remind you that in such ethnographic films going back to “Nanook of the North”—the original—the filmmaker has the upper hand. It is to Fairbanks’s credit that he acknowledges this in very revealing footage. (The film is co-directed by Saul Kak, a Zoque Indian who did the translation.) He puts it this way in the press notes:

Here and elsewhere, THE MODERN JUNGLE is also about documentary. As it portrays cross-cultural encounters structured by and through the camera, our film doesn’t shy away from the messy interpersonal, economic, and social repercussions of filming in impoverished communities. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm describes how the author of nonfiction tends to represent himself differently than all other characters: “He forms the exception to the rule that nothing may be invented. The ‘I’ of journalism” [and, I contend, documentary]:

…is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way––the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.

In contrast to this convention, I wanted to depict ‘the documentary director’ as a complex and flawed character, despite ‘his’ (that is, my) best intentions. Likewise, I wanted to show that making this film had real repercussions on the lives of its main characters. It became evident, while filming, that I too am an intruder, an outside force, a symptom of globalization in the world of Juan and Carmen. So, to make an honest film about their encounters with modernity, it seemed necessary to subvert this convention and address the ways we negotiate the power of representation.

Kudos to Fairbanks and Kak for making a film with a difference.

January 13, 2017

The Standout Films of 2016

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

One of my picks

The Standout Films of 2016

As most of you probably know, Netflix no longer bothers with the offbeat films I tend to review, either as DVD or streaming. Since my reviews cover documentaries, foreign films and American indies that tend to be shown in art houses like New York’s Film Forum, I always regret that my readers living in cities or towns where there is nothing but Cineplexes are forced to choose between multimillion dollar movies about space aliens or Judd Apatow comedies.

The good news is that Amazon and ITunes have picked up the slack. Although I hate Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook just as much as the next person, I am glad that these types of art house films can now be seen in the same year they premiered for between $3.99 and $5.99 in these venues.

I tend to avoid identifying “best of” movies or directors after the fashion of the Academy Awards and only take part in New York Film Critics Online yearly awards meetings because members are expected to take part. This week’s Golden Globe awards ceremony pretty much sums up why the whole thing turns me off. Although I managed to sit through “La La Land” that walked off with the lion’s share of the awards, I found it far less interesting than the narrative films listed below that were diametrically opposed to Damien Chazelle’s sugar-coated retro-musical.

The twenty films listed below were among the best that I saw this year but I would be loath to sort them in order by preference rather than alphabetical order. Competition of this sort always turned me off whether it is for the Nobel Prize (good for Dylan to avoid the tuxedo and gown spectacle) or even for the Isaac Deutscher Prize. I wonder sometimes what Trotsky’s biographer would think of Marxists competing with each other for a £500 prize. Or Leon Trotsky for that matter, who is history’s greatest loser in some ways. I tend to identify with losers so I guess I’ll never fit into an American society that now has its President the host of “Apprentice” where “losers” are humiliated for failing to come up with some “winning” strategy for selling junk of the sort that Trump’s Empire is built on.

All of the films below can be seen on Amazon streaming and probably ITunes, although I haven’t checked that out. By and large, they are released to both platforms at the same time. That is why, interestingly enough, that Amazon is not part of the menu that comes with Apple TV, Tim Cook’s rip-off of the Roku box.

Needless to say, none of the documentaries likely made it to cities and towns that lacked an art house. Most of the narrative films are those that were also released in such theaters with a few exceptions made for two films that deserve being singled out: “Free State of Jones” that I consider a political and artistic breakthrough and “Snowden”, Oliver Stone’s best work in many years.

Finally, I include a brief excerpt from my review of the films with a link to the full review.

Read full article

January 10, 2017

Twin Cities; Go North

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Two narrative films have come my way recently whose combined budget is probably less than 3 percent of what it cost to make La La Land but for my money are far more interesting films. One is titled “Twin Cities” and defies easy description. Even if writer/director Dave Ash is a Twin Cities resident, don’t expect it to be a warm and whimsical treatment of the region’s foibles a la Lake Woebegon. Or like fellow Twin Cities favorite sons Coen brothers whose trademark irony seems toothless compared to Ash, whose sensibility is a mixture of Kafka and Kierkegaard. The other is titled “Go North”, a post-apocalyptic tale inspired by “Lord of the Flies” that eschews the cheap thrills of the Road Warrior series in favor of a simple, even minimalist tale of survival in a world where children seek to build a new civilization based on the worst instincts of the one that has died.

As “Twin Cities” unfolds, we meet a husband and wife whose marriage is beginning to come apart at the seams. John is a computer programmer with an affectless demeanor that makes you wonder if he might be an automaton. His wife Emily is a novelist who has received marching orders from her editor to cut her 1000-page novel drastically and to make her principal characters more developed. While professing their love for each other every chance they get, there is little indication of what drew them together in the first place except physical attraction—the same bad chemistry that accounts for 90 percent of failed marriages.

“Twin Cities” is a sequel to “2021”, a film that I reviewed three years ago when its working title was “Connected” and about which I wrote:

“Connected” opens with John Cooper walking away from his cubicle into the men’s room at his workplace—a biotech company—and sticking a loaded revolver in his mouth. For the time being, he decides that life is still worth living and puts the gun away.

John would seem to have something to live for since he has been assigned to work on the company’s hot new project, an attempt to translate the human genome into computer code that would prove capable of replicating the human brain to the point of passing the Turing test: a computer is capable of fooling a human being to think that he is communicating with another human.

The irony of course is that the very programmer who is leading the project is having a devil of a time getting through to Emily, the smart and beautiful woman whose character armor—to put it in Reichian terms—would thwart a blockbuster bomb. Like John, she uses humor as a defense mechanism. On one of their first dates, he asks her to reveal something very personal about herself. Without skipping a beat, she says that she was born with two vaginas. He quickly replies that he knew there was something special about her.

The deadpan and lacerating humor continues in the sequel. Not long after the film starts, John learns that he has terminal colorectal cancer, which inspires him to seek the deeper meaning of life now that he only has four months of it left. Unlike the soulful main characters of Kurosawa’s classic “Ikiru” or Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” awaiting their own imminent demise, John treats his own prospects with his characteristic sense of the absurd.

After getting the bad news from the doctor, John returns home to fill Emily in:

“I have cancer”.


“I have cancer”.

“What do you mean? How?”

“I went to a doctor since I haven’t been feeling well lately and they ran some tests a few days ago”.

“Fuck you”.

“I begin intensive chemotherapy in a week. And if they don’t stop it in a few months, then that’s the end of me. Colorectal carcinoma. I have cancer in my asshole. I have asshole cancer.”

While this exchange is taking place, an inane pop tune is playing on the radio. “California…Well, the sun is shining bright”.

Like most people facing death, John meets with a minister who ends up confessing to him that he really has no answers to the big questions of life and death. When he visits his parents for perhaps the last time, he is told that they only went to church because they enjoyed the social life. As they used to say in the 1960s, God is Dead.

But in the final analysis, the film is not about Existential issues but about art itself. As John exits the stage (but not in the way we expect), Emily becomes the central character and the story of the film and her elephantine novel become interwoven in a way that finally leaves your head spinning.

I have no information on the film’s distribution but keep an eye out for it at your better film festivals.

Appropriate to a post-apocalyptic film, “Go North” was filmed in Detroit and stars Jacob Lofland in the role of Josh, a fifteen-year old denizen of a Detroit (unnamed in the film) neighborhood that consists of rundown houses and abandoned factories.

Each day he goes off to a nearby school where the teachers are just a couple of years older than him and ill-prepared to teach anything except survival skills like trapping animals. Since everybody over the age of twenty-one seems to have succumbed to some global catastrophe that the film does not identify (it is not needed for a plot that brackets out social and political considerations), it is up to what amounts to high school bullies to keep order and to help propagate the species.

Josh’s teacher is an alpha male named Caleb who is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son Patrick in the casting coup of the year. If you are going to develop a villainous character for a post-apocalyptic film, there’s no better choice than the Terminator’s son.

When Caleb is not “teaching”, he is acting as overseer for the garden that Josh and other children toil in after class under the watchful eye of Caleb’s henchman Martin (Joshua Close) who epitomizes the worst aspects of the high school bully. But when social norms have disappeared such an individual can abuse his power to the point of making up Josh’s mind and that of Caleb’s younger sister Jessie (Sophie Kennedy Clark) to “go North” in search of a better life.

As I have stated, this film makes no pretense of trying to make social commentary about the sharp decline of American civilization and sticks to telling a story about young people on the run from predators. In effect, it is a road movie in the same genre as the Road Warrior flicks but much more modest and much more enjoyable.

The film opens this Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and on VOD. It is well worth seeing.

January 1, 2017

Seven Documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

In late November, I wrote about some excellent films featured in the 2016 New York African Diaspora International Film Festival. New Yorkers will get a chance to see a follow up screening of the “best of” films from the festival between January 13 to 15 including one called “Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories” that epitomizes the mission of the festival that began in 1993.

“Gurumbe” is a documentary that pays tribute to the Africans who were enslaved by the Spaniards in the early stages of capitalism but not transported to the Americas. Instead they were sold at the auction in Spanish cities to serve as household servants, factory workers and even assistant to fine artists. In the 1700s, for example, 10 percent of the population of Seville were slaves and another 5 percent were freemen. Whether slave or free, the Africans made an important contribution to Spanish culture, particularly to flamenco—an art form that has always been seen as exclusively a contribution from the Roma but that also owed much to uniquely African rhythms.

The film succeeds on two levels. For the mind, you get some of Spain’s top-flight anthropologists and historians who have been delving into the historical archives of cities like Seville to unearth evidence of the African legacy. Even more astonishingly, forensic anthropologists have discovered skeletons beneath the garbage dumps from hundreds of years ago that were certainly African. Since the slaves were not considered proper Catholics, they did not deserve a proper burial in the eyes of their masters. With some skulls bearing the marks of a lethal blow, you get proof of the deep-seated racism that persists until this day in Spain that the film’s creators and the experts they interviewed are determined to eradicate.

On another level, the film appeals directly to the heart through performances by a wide range of musicians who have mastered the flamenco style and particularly its likely African roots. There are also flamenco performances that have the rawness that are most often linked to the Roma sensibility but conceivably are testaments to the feelings of desolation and homesickness felt by slaves.

It was not just music where slaves left their mark. Juan de Pareja served as a slave in the studio of Diego Velasquez, one of Spain’s greatest artists, carrying out menial tasks. But when he showed an artistic ability, Velasquez gave him the opportunity to develop his talent and finally gave him his freedom in 1650. His painting “The Calling of St. Matthew” is exhibited in El Prado while Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant is at the Met.

The Calling of St. Matthew

Portrait of Juan de Pareja

The film is directed by Miguel Ángel Rosales, an anthropologist focused on Andalusia. His work is a labor of love that I can’t praise highly enough. The film is not only a great introduction to Spain’s past but a cry of protest against the racism that has been infecting Europe in the past few years. For many Spaniards, the boat people coming from war-torn and economically devastated Sub-Saharan Africa are viewed as a pestilence. The film will serve to demonstrate the debt owed to such peoples, including from Santander Bank that was the product of a merger historically with a bank that derived every penny from the slave trade.

“Watani: My Homeland” is a film that touches more directly on the refugee crisis. This is a forty-minute documentary that is being considered for an Academy Award alongside “The White Helmets”. Like “The White Helmets”, it is a response to the hell that has been visited on the people of East Aleppo by the Baathist tyranny and its foreign allies.

The film begins in East Aleppo where we meet Abu Ali, who is an officer of the Free Syrian Army and whose wife and four children literally dodge mortal shells, machine gun bullets and barrel bombs in their daily routines. The children have become shockingly inured to the violence as they even play games with toy weapons that mimic the real fighting taking place a stone’s throw from the hollowed-out buildings that surround them.

Abu Ali is frank about the prospects awaiting him, his family and his comrades in East Aleppo. Has he destroyed their lives in a futile attempt to change a brutal system whose brutality reached deeper levels of depravity as the war wore on? By the time the film was being made, it was too late to turn back the clock.

After Abu Ali is abducted by ISIS, his family becomes eligible for refugee status in Germany. They move to a small village that is populated by old people who are anxious to receive new and younger neighbors to keep it alive. This is a factor that probably explains the material basis for Angela Merkel’s specious humanitarianism.

The film was made by Marcel Mettelsiefen, a German citizen, who has been covering the Arab Spring since 2011 and began reporting from within Syria in April 2011. Since then he has filmed and photographed within Syria more than twenty-five times. He deserves a medal for risking his life to make such a powerful film.

Fortunately, much of the material that make up the film was shown originally under the title “Children of Aleppo” on a PBS Frontline documentary (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/children-of-syria/) that I recommend both watching and circulating far and wide. It will go a long way in countering the vicious propaganda campaign directed at the White Helmets and even the seven-year-old Bana Alabed that would have you believe that they are al-Qaeda agents.

Despite the horrors that took place yesterday in Istanbul yesterday, the city is capable of great warmth and solidarity, even extended to the street cats that are paid tribute to in the wonderful documentary “Kedi” (Turkish for cat) that opens on February 10th at the Metrograph theater in New York.

Unlike most cities, Istanbul has not been reduced to sterile concrete edifices. There are many nooks and crannies where cats can remain feral but amenable to interacting with human beings in a variety of ways but on their own terms. We see cats departing from their makeshift homes each day and making the rounds of nearby restaurants and shops where Turks are all too happy to share food with one of god’s creatures. What makes the film so effective is that the director has devised a camera rig that follows the cat around on its peregrinations at its eye-level. We see things from the cat’s perspective and also see it from behind as it circumnavigates restaurant tables, fishermen’s wharves, back alleys, trees, rooftops and other places where the cat feels at home.

And to top it off, we hear from Istanbul’s cat lovers who combine humor, self-deprecation and the uniquely Turkish sensibility that makes the country’s current troubles seem such a curse.

There’s a personal angle here worth mentioning. My wife’s brother-in-law moved to New York about a year ago to get away from the country’s troubles. He brought along with him a female cat named Boncuk (Turkish for jewel and pronounced bonjuk) that he spotted on the street in Istanbul and adopted. She has the supreme diffidence that makes cats so special as well as a beauty that will make her name seem so appropriate.



Moving from cats to dogs, I urge you to see “Stray Dog”, a documentary about a man who appears at first blush to belong to Donald Trump’s “basket of deplorables” but becomes something much more—far much more—as Debra Granik’s film unfolds. Granik’s subject is Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a Vietnam veteran who manages a trailer park in rural southern Missouri and who is married to a Mexican woman–a recent immigrant. His favorite pastimes seem to be driving his Harley-Davidson to memorial meetings for military veterans and sitting around with other veterans in the trailer park swapping tales about their past and ruminating on the miseries of old age, including the need for Viagra and dentures. Despite his advanced years, Hall is a formidable character with tattoos and garb that are distinctly Hell’s Angel fashion-wise. He looks exactly like the kind of person you would avoid if you ran into him on the way to a peace demonstration.

Granik ran into him in southern Missouri when she was casting for her film “Winter’s Bone” that is about the area’s hillbilly drug dealers. He was cast as type but in the course of making the film, she learned that appearances can be deceiving.

Hall, unlike many Trump voters, was open to marrying a Mexican immigrant and even making a home for her twin teenaged sons that he and his wife will be bringing up to the trailer park for a new life in the USA in the course of the film. He is also no war hawk, saying offhandedly at one point that it is the rich man who makes war and the poor who fight it.

Hall knows all about poverty, growing up the son of a cotton-picking sharecropper family. He joined the army to escape poverty and went to Vietnam for two tours of duty. He brought back terrible memories of the war that wake him up on many nights yelling in horror. In the press notes for “Stray Dog”, Granik explains her motivation in making such a film:

Stray Dog’s story is also about a Midwestern workingman negotiating the convulsions of our times – gun culture, unemployment and underemployment in recession-era America. Why does a relative or a neighbor join a militia group? How do you advise a grandchild who can’t make ends meet working two full-time jobs? When does boredom, frustration or lack of opportunities lead to changing the receivables on an AK-47?

As the Vietnam generation grows older, its history is being re-written, and is at risk of being whitewashed. Stray Dog is a warrior who sees the links between his struggles and those of today’s soldiers. He and some of his fellow vets can show us what PTSD is like many years later, long after the headlines fade. Now we have a name for the way it changes the brains of soldiers. We know that it’s one of the costs of war, and we know this mainly because people like Ron have taken the risk to tell us about it.

“Stray Dog” can be seen on Amazon streaming and is well worth the $3.99 to see a memorable portrait of a man who defies stereotypical thinking.

If you like me are filled with loathing over those BP ads that flood Sunday morning TV about how things have “returned to normal” in the waters off of Louisiana, I recommend “After the Spill” that documents the permanent damage to the wildlife and nature in general.

It is an indictment of Louisiana politicians who are all too willing to destroy the lives of fisherman and the general public in order to “save jobs”, the cry of the state’s venal politician Bobby Jindal and lesser-known legislators who are in the back pocket of oil companies.

Louisiana is literally being deluged by the Gulf of Mexico as a consequence of unwise “development” that removed the natural barriers to flooding. There are men and women of conscience in Louisiana willing to take on the despoilers, including John Barry whose expert commentary is heard throughout the film.

Barry is a historian who wrote about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that had as much of an impact on driving working people to the north as the Jim Crow system. Because of his expertise on water, he became a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East (SLFPAE) , the levee board overseeing the New Orleans metro area on the east bank of the Mississippi River. On July 24, 2013, SLFPAE sued Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, Chevron and 94 other oil, gas, and pipeline companies for their role in destroying Louisiana’s coastline. Barry’s expertise was reflected in the suit and he became its major spokesman. Governor Bobby Jindal fought against the lawsuit and a federal judge sharing his pro-corporate views dismissed it. It is now under appeal and obviously faces an uphill battle given a Trump White House.

Like “Stray Dog”, “After the Spill” can be seen on Amazon streaming and other VOD services.

Opening on January 20th at the Village East in New York, “They Call Us Monsters” is a look at three juvenile offenders trapped inside a prison system that now treats all offenders as adults no matter how young they are. The film shows one eleven-year old boy on trial for murder. The three youths in “They Call Us Monsters” are older but certainly not as capable as adults in acting responsibly, especially when they live in neighborhoods that are dominated by gang warfare. Even when they are released, as one of the three is, it is a struggle to avoid recidivism especially when you are homeless and unable to find work.

Into their world comes a filmmaker named Gilbert Cowan who is one of the documentary’s producers. His goal is to draw them into a screenplay writing class that will result in a film that they help write. Since they are facing long prison sentences, there is little hope that such an exercise will prepare them for work after release or even whether it will help make life behind bars more tolerable. Mostly, they take part in the exercise with a healthy degree of skepticism and find it mostly as a diversion from the boredom and despair of prison life.

Like Cowan, director Ben Lear (the son of Norman Lear) is a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition that teaches a weekly writing class within the high-security Compound of Sylmar Juvenile Hall and mentors former juvenile offenders.

Guess where this reactionary practice of treating 15-year olds as adults come from. You guessed it. It was part of Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill. Along with the draconian mandatory sentences, putting young people in prison for long stretches has cost our country billions of dollars and destroyed the lives of young people and their families as well. An article in Atlantic Monthly pointed out that a year in a New Jersey prison costs $7000 more a year than a year at Princeton. And a forty year prison terms costs far more than 4 years at Princeton.

Every so often, actually every day of the year, I am reminded of the irrationalities of the capitalist system. Leave it to the son of the good Norman Lear to work on such a project that fights for sanity and to make a film relevant to his humanitarian ideals.

(Screening information on “They Call Us Monsters” nationally can be seen here.

Heavy screening duties in early December prevented me from seeing “First Lady of the Revolution” until after it had finished its run in New York. This is a documentary about Henrietta Boggs, who became the wife of Costa Rica’s President José ‘Don Pepe’ Figueres in 1941. Boggs is still alive at the age of 98.

The film is a combination of her personal story and Costa Rican politics that was tangled to say the least. Bogg’s account of her husband’s political legacy was decidedly critical even though it is generally positive. I invite you to see it if becomes available as VOD (I will give you a head’s up) but it might be useful to consider my analysis of what happened in Costa Rica when Boggs was First Lady:

Another important element of the particularism of the modern Costa Rican state and society was the events surrounding the Presidency of Rafael Calderon in the 1940s. Calderon was a Roosevelt-styled reformer who won the election in 1942 and proceeded to institute a number of progressive social measures including Social Security, a first for Central America. Like Roosevelt, he instituted many of these measures from the top down and had no intention of allowing the working-class or peasantry to go beyond the boundaries this caudillo had set.

He had two powerful allies in this enterprise: the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of Costa Rica. The CP had a substantial base among banana plantation workers and under the influence of the popular front threw its full support behind Calderon in the same way its sister party supported FDR.

Calderon’s development model was based on export agriculture and for the most part had goal to undermine the power of the traditional oligarchies. While Costa Rica’s bourgeoisie was not as vicious as El Salvador’s, it still had no intention of allowing full-scale agrarian reform.

Calderon’s paternalism and his development model alienated much of the country’s emerging urban petty-bourgeoisie. They preferred a more modern capitalism that was diversified and less oriented to export agriculture. Furthermore, Calderon, like many of Central America’s traditional caudillos, was corrupt. The corruption was not as blatant as Somoza’s but it was just enough to anger the urban petty-bourgeoisie.

This most politically advanced members of this modernizing middle-class started a think tank called the “Center for the Study of National Problems” in 1948. This think tank was sharply anti-imperialist and thought that Calderon’s export-oriented model ceded too much to the United Fruit Company and other foreign companies. They produced studies that fed into popular discontent against Calderon.

They could be properly called “petty-bourgeois nationalists”, the formulation a list member used to falsely categorize the Sandinistas. They believed that Costa Rica’s main problem was domination by foreign and domestic capital, however they did not accept Marxist theory at all.

This group became allied with a grouping within the powerful bourgeois Democratic Party called Democratic Action. Its main leader was one Jose Figueres who was also a petty-bourgeois nationalist. Figureres’s group joined with the urban middle-class professionals in the Center for the Study of National Problems and created Costa Rica’s Social Democratic Party in 1948. This party also attracted the support of many of Costa Rica’s oligarchs who were nervous about Calderon’s populism and his Communist Party support.

When the anti-Calderon forces lost the elections in 1948, they launched a civil war that targeted many CP members. Martial law was declared and the junta threw its support to the Social Democratic rebellion. The civil war, while bloody, was inconclusive. The two factions eventually made peace and formed a coalition government. Neither of the contending class forces in the civil war were capable of achieving victory and the contradictions between them remained unresolved for the next several decades.

In order to mediate between themselves, they made a decision to suspend warfare and co-exist within parliamentary forms. They also decided to dissolve the army since they calculated that it could be counted on as a reliable ally to either faction. This act was unprecedented in Central American history. The irony, not at all understood by superficial Social Democrats like Village Voice writer Paul Berman, was that it required a bloody civil war to result in the abolition of the armed forces of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica managed to avoid the deep-going conflicts that marked the rest of Central America in the post WWII era largely because Calderon’s welfare state model was eventually accepted by both factions. This model allowed the bourgeoisie to coopt popular struggles. It has remained a successful counter-revolutionary strategy for some decades, but could break down in the 1990s as export agriculture-based economies continue their downward slide. Just as Sweden has begun to attack the welfare state measures that defined it, so has Costa Rica. What the political consequences of all this will be is difficult to say, but one thing is clear: Costa Rica’s exceptionalism is not permanent.

December 30, 2016

Alone in Berlin; Sophie Scholl–the Final Days

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

Alone, Resisting the Nazis

Seven years ago, when I heard that Hans Fallada’s novel “Alone in Berlin” had been translated into English, I immediately borrowed a copy from the Columbia library and began reading about the elderly couple who had secretly distributed anti-Nazi postcards in public places after their only son had been killed in combat during the German invasion of France in 1940. As the novel was 544 pages and had to compete with other reading tasks that had higher priority at the time, I was forced to put it aside after 60 or so pages.

After seeing a press screener for the film based on the novel that opens at the IFC Center in New York City on January 13th, I plan to take the book out again and give it my highest priority. That’s what a powerful film will do—inspire you to read the original, in this case a work based on a true story.

As the film closes, you will see a dedication to the couple that it was based on: Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class couple (he was a factory worker; she cleaned apartments) that composed postcards calling for the overthrow of Hitler and left them in public places around Berlin. They were eventually caught, tried, and beheaded in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison in April 1943. The title of Fallada’s novel was meant to convey the determination of the couple to act against Hitler, even if they were “alone” in doing so. As Fallada’s character Otto Quangel tells his wife Anna once they begin their fearless but desperate campaign, the death of their son—their only reason for living—has left them free to act in an unfree society. More existential than political, their choice was the only one that presented itself to Germans of conscience in 1940, when support for Hitler was at its height.

Made in France but using English actors, the film benefits from a first-rate screenplay co-written by director Vincent Perez and the husband and wife team Achim and Borries von Borries (Achim wrote the very fine screenplay for “Goodbye, Lenin!”, a film that had the nerve to find good things to say about Communist East Germany). Perez, of Spanish descent but who grew up in Spain, started off as an actor and given his being cast in the lead role of Ashe Corven in the dark thriller “The Crow: City of Angels”, you might wonder what drew him to this project. The press notes explain why:

For Perez, Fallada’s book had great, personal significance. On his father’s side, Perez’s family is from Spain. His grandfather fought for the Republicans against Franco’s Fascist regime during the Spanish Civil War and was executed for it while his family on his mother’s side is German and fled Nazi Germany. “My mother was born in 1939 but they, like many millions, joined the Exodus, walking for five years, then coming back after the war,” he explains. “When you have German blood it raises so many questions I needed to find the answers to, and through that book I found some amazing things. Reading Fallada forced me to build up a family history.”

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December 16, 2016

All That Hollywood Jazz

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,music — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

All That Hollywood Jazz

Let me start with my own connections to jazz that run as deep as those to Marxism and film, the other two passions in a long and largely quixotic lifetime. In the summer of 1961, just before I headed off to Bard College for my freshman year, I sat at a table in a pizza parlor in the Catskills enjoying a pie with my buddies when someone put a dime in the juke box to play a tune that left me thunderstruck: Miles Davis playing “Summertime”. That it was on a juke box in 1961 should tell you something about the difference between now and then.

After finding out more about Miles Davis, I began taking jazz records out of the well-stocked Bard music library and became conversant in the music of the day, which was arguably jazz in its classic period with hard bop and the West Coast style prevailing but with the avant-garde making its first appearances. In my freshman year, I heard the Paul Bley quartet in concert featuring saxophone player Pharaoh Sanders whose “sheets of sound” paved the way for the New Thing a few years later. As New Thing icon Albert Ayler put it, “Trane was the Father, Pharaoh was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost”.

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December 11, 2016

New York Film Critics Online 2016 Awards

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:36 pm

I just returned from our annual meeting. These were the awards voted by our members, followed by the ballot I submitted on Friday.

New York Film Critics Online members held their annual awards meeting on December 11, 2016, at the Furman Gallery inside Lincoln Center.

The following awards for films that opened in 2016 were voted:

Picture – Moonlight
Director – Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
– Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
–  Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Supporting Actor
– Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Supporting Actress
– Viola Davis, Fences
Screenplay – Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Breakthrough Performer
– Ruth Negga, Loving
Debut Director
– Robert Eggers, The Witch
Ensemble Cast
– Moonlight
Documentary – 13th
Foreign Language
– The Handmaiden
– Kubo and the Two Strings
y – James Laxton, Moonlight
Use of Music
– Justin Hurwitz (composer), La La Land

Top 12 Films
Arrival (Paramount)
Fences (Paramount)
Free State of Jones (STX Entertainment)
Hell or High Water (CBS Films)
I, Daniel Blake (IFC Films)
Jackie (Fox Searchlight)
La La Land (Lionsgate)
Loving (Focus Features)
Manchester by the Sea (Amazon/Roadside Attractions)
Moonlight (A24)
O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)
Toni Erdmann (Sony Pictures Classics)

My ballot (NYFCO members are asked to submit 3 choices even if you are allowed to submit less than 3 and even abstain. The higher the number, the higher the preference. A NYFCO committee winnows out the top choices of members that we vote on at our meeting.)

New York Film Critics Online 2016 Awards Nomination Ballot

Breakthrough Performance (name actor/film)
1. Taraji P. Henson / Hidden Figures
2. Anton Yelchin / The Green Room
3. Keegan-Michael Key / Don’t Think Twice

Supporting Actress (name actor/film)
1. Gillian Jacobs / Don’t Think Twice
2. Aunjanue Ellis / Birth of a Nation
3. Carmen Ejogo / Born to be Blue

Supporting Actor (name actor/film)
1. André Holland / Moonlight
2. Armie Hammer / Birth of a Nation
3. Kevin Costner / Hidden Figures

Screenplay (name film)
1. Free State of Jones
2. Touched with Fire
3. Don’t Think Twice

Cinematography (name film)
1. Touched with Fire
2. Birth of a Nation
3. Moonlight

Use of Music (name film)

1. Touched with Fire
2. LaLa Land
3. The Lobster

Debut Director (name directors/film)

1. François Ruffin / Merci Patron!
2. Craig Atkinson / Do Not Resist
3. Johanna Schwartz / They Will Have to Kill Us First

Director (name directors/film)
1. Ken Loach / I, Daniel Blake
2. Paul Dalio / Touched with Fire
3. Nate Parker / Birth of a Nation

Actress (name actor/film)
1. Katie Holmes / Touched with Fire
2. Natalie Portman / Jackie
3. Taraji P. Henson / Hidden Figures

Actor (name actor/film)
1. Nate Parker / Birth of a Nation
2. Luke Kirby / Touched with Fire
3. Ashton Sanders / Moonlight

Ensemble Cast (name film)

1. The Green Room
2. Don’t Think Twice
3. Denial

Picture (name film)

1. Free State of Jones
2. I, Daniel Blake
3. Don’t Think Twice

Foreign Language (name film)
1. Fireworks Wednesday
2. Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
3. The Unknown Girl

Documentary (name film)
1. Peter and the Farm
2. Art Bastard
3. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero

Animated Feature (name film)
1. Tower
2. April and the Extraordinary World

December 10, 2016

Hidden Figures; The Man Who Knew Infinity

Filed under: african-american,Film,india,racism,science — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

When two screeners submitted to NYFCO members for consideration as best film of 2016 happen to deal with racism against people of color who are gifted mathematicians if not outright geniuses, your first reaction might be to consider it a coincidence. But upon further reflection, despite all of the gloom about the election of Donald Trump, the film industry still sees such stories as eminently marketable rather than Rambo retreads. Not only are the films marketable, they are first rate.

“Hidden Figures”, which opens everywhere on January 6th, 2017, tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and who had to deal with both racial oppression and sexism. Of the three, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) receives most of the attention. Now 98, she calculated the launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission. As the daughter of a lumberjack in segregated West Virginia, she had many obstacles to overcome. Although I have little use for President Obama, I thought he exercised good judgement when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

While its venue was in art houses last April, where features generally make a fleeting appearance unlike the Multiplexes that will screen “Hidden Figures”, my readers will certainly want to take advantage of “The Man Who Knew Infinity” now on Amazon streaming. This is the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel), who grew up poor in Madras, India and demonstrated a mastery of mathematics from an early age. Working as a lowly clerk after the fashion of Bob Cratchit, his supervisor was struck by a notebook of formulas he kept, so much so that he encouraged him to send letters with a sample of his work to universities in England. After Cambridge don G. H. Hardy (played to perfection by Jeremy Irons) reads the material, he invites Ramanujan to come to Trinity College and fulfill his dreams. Like NASA, however, the institution is racist to the core and almost crushes Ramanujan into the dust.

While both films have most of the well-trod inspirational elements you would associate with such tales, they rise above the genre and soar. This is mostly a function of their faithfulness to the historical context, informed to a large extent by the well-researched books they are based on. Written this year, Margot Lee Shatterly’s “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” was sparked by conversations she had with her father, who was an African-American research scientist at the NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia where the women in “Hidden Figures” worked. As for “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, the source material was a book of the same name written in 1991 by Robert Kanigel, who worked as an engineer before becoming a free-lance writer in 1970. In 1999, he became professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he helped start its Graduate Program in Science Writing, which he directed for seven years. So clearly, we are dealing with authors who are very much wedded to the stories they write about.

In addition to Katherine Johnson, the other two Black women facing discrimination at NASA are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Vaughan was the supervisor of the West Area Computers section at NASA that despite the name consisted of African-American women whose job it was to do tedious calculations and check the mathematics of other employees, almost like fact checkers at the New Yorker Magazine. Known as “computers”, they had to be much more rigorous than those working for a magazine since the lives of astronauts depended on it. The West Area was segregated from the main buildings at in Hampton—separate and unequal. The women could not even use the bathrooms on the main campus or even the water fountains. When Katherine Johnson ended up working with the white scientists, she had to walk a quarter-mile to return to the West Area to go to the bathroom. When Mary Jackson decided to become an engineer to get away from the drudge work of being a human computer, she found out that no college in Virginia would accept a Black person. Undaunted, she took a night class in a high school after winning a legal case to gain such a right.

In some ways, the film will remind you of “The Imitation Game”, which was also about a crash program run by mathematicians and engineers. But unlike “The Imitation Game”, “Hidden Figures” is much more of a human drama since there is a daily battle by the women to be recognized as equals to whites and to men. In the most stirring scene in the film, Katherine Johnson explains to her boss (played capably by Kevin Costner) that she disappears a couple of times a day from her desk in order to go to the bathroom in a segregated area. Appalled by the waste of time and the disrespect to a fellow worker, he goes around NASA and tears down all the signs indicating facilities for the “colored”.

As another coincidence, the film climaxes with the successful orbital flight of John Glenn (Glen Powell) in 1962. Glenn died two days ago at the age of 95. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate his orbit around Earth, Johnson was called upon to verify the numbers because Glenn refused to fly unless Katherine verified them first.

When Ramanujan arrives at Trinity College, he is met by racism from every quarter. Even his champion G.H. Hardy mixes well-intended paternalism with jibes about sending him back to India if he doesn’t make the grade.

In many ways, Hardy is a more interesting character than Ramanujan because he is constantly being forced to reckon with the disjunction between his prejudices and the reality of the young man in front of him who he finally acknowledges as the Mozart of mathematics—a man who could penetrate to the heart of a math puzzle and solve it as easily as Mozart could write a sonata.

In one scene, Ramanujan is sitting in a lecture that Hardy has pressured him to attend in order to compensate for ostensible deficiencies in his autodidactic training. When a professor asks him why he is not taking notes, he replies that it is not necessary since he understands the material on the blackboard completely. Not believing him, the professor goads him into explaining what the formulas on the blackboard are about. Nonplussed, Ramanujan arises from his seat, goes to the blackboard and provides a sophisticated solution to the problems being posed by the professor. This does not result in congratulations but instead being thrown out of class for his perceived arrogance. Apparently he doesn’t know his place.

Unlike nearly every film I have seen about scientific matters or chess, this is one that makes very clear what made Ramanujan such a genius. He was the first to crack the “partition” problem that the film elucidates.

Take the number four. There are four ways to calculate the number of paths to that number using simple mathematics:

  1. 1+1+1+1
  2. 2+2
  3. 2+1+1
  4. 3+1
  5. 4+0

But what if the number was 3,789,422 instead? Was there any way to use a formula to arrive at the number of ‘partitions’ and bypass manual calculations? This is a problem that has vexed mathematicians forever until Ramanujan solved it. I have no idea what the practical application of such a formula would be but Ramanujan, unlike most men at Trinity College including Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) who were atheists, was deeply religious and once told Hardy that god gave him the insights to solve such problems. For him, solving math problems and praying complemented each other.

The Wikipedia entry on Ramanujan, who died of TB at the age of 32, is most informative:

During his short life, Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3,900 results (mostly identities and equations). Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct. His original and highly unconventional results, such as the Ramanujan prime and the Ramanujan theta function, have inspired a vast amount of further research. The Ramanujan Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was established to publish work in all areas of mathematics influenced by Ramanujan.

Deeply religious, Ramanujan credited his substantial mathematical capacities to divinity: “An equation for me has no meaning,” he once said, “unless it expresses a thought of God.”

After seeing both of these films, I could not help but be reminded of one of the main reasons I became a socialist in 1967. When it is such a battle for the women of “Hidden Figures” or Ramanujan to rise to the top, think of all those who were not fortunate to be given a chance. What a waste of humanity when class divisions require a mass of workers to be treated little better than a horse or any other beast of burden. I put it this way in my review of a documentary about Ousmane Sembene, the brilliant Senegalese film director who was thrown out of grade school for assaulting an abusive teacher:

I became a socialist in the 1960s largely on the belief that capitalism held back civilization by preventing a large majority of the world’s population from reaching its maximum potential. If the children of Asia, Africa and Latin America could enjoy the same benefits of those in rich countries, especially a top-notch education and the leisure time to develop innate talents, that could enhance the possibility of a great artist like Picasso or the scientist who could find a cure for cancer emerging out of formerly neglected regions.

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

December 5, 2016

Don’t confuse the Dardennes with the Ardennes.

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:42 am

I walked out of a film screening tonight for the first time in years. Usually when I walk out, I don’t bother saying anything about the film for obvious reasons. But “The Ardennes” was so aggravating that I feel obligated to warn my readers since it is Belgium’s nomination for best foreign film for the upcoming Academy Awards.

To start off, I went down to the Flanders House in the NY Times building near Times Square on the assumption that it was a documentary about the Dardennes brothers who I hold in the highest regard for their social drama focused on the plight of Belgium’s workers and underclass. To some extent this was the result of not reading the publicist’s notes carefully enough:


When looking at what other film critics have to say about the film, I was struck by what Variety’s Ben Kenigsberg’s reference to such a misunderstanding:

Pity the filmgoer who expects the Dardenne brothers when meeting the brothers of “The Ardennes,” a Belgian Christmas story in which sibling betrayal is resolved in increasingly brutal fashion. Closer to the absurdism of Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) than to some of first-time feature helmer Robin Pront’s acknowledged models (Tarantino, the Coens), the movie is slow to reveal its nastier elements, appearing for two-thirds of its running time to be merely an absorbing, low-key drama about a troubled family reuniting after one son’s release from prison.

I didn’t stick around long enough to see the film through its paces but I have little use for Tarantino or the Coen brothers nowadays. But the little use I do have for them would not be extended to Robin Pront. My impression is that any filmmaker described as Tarantino-esque nowadays is recycling material whose shelf life was exceeded a decade ago.

The story has to do with two brothers, one who works in a car wash and the other who has just been released from prison. The film telegraphs its intention early on that these are low lives that have zero likability, especially Kenny—the one who has just been released from prison—and who sports a Nazi/hipster hairdo as reported on in the Washington Post:


Kenny in “The Ardennes”

Ten minutes into the movie, Kenny is back at home with his mom who warns his brother that she won’t put up with their nonsense any more. As a clear sign that the director intends to make the character look unpalatable, he is seen in his bedroom watching violent video games at night and then masturbating. After watching this, I got myself ready to bolt for the door.

One morning, as Kenny is going out his mom asks him anxiously about his plans. With a Nazi hairdo, he could be up to anything. He answers that he is going out to rob a bank. A joke but certainly one that anticipates the film’s trajectory.

It turns out that he is looking up his old girlfriend—an ex-junkie—who he locates in her Addicts Anonymous meeting. After taking a seat, he listens to one of the group members, an African immigrant in a wheelchair, telling the others how grateful he is to be drug-free. After he finishes speaking, the counselor asks the others what they feel grateful about. Kenny raises his hand and after being called on delivers a racist tirade against the African about whether he is grateful for not living in the bush anymore, drinking filthy water and relying on handouts from the Belgians.

At that point I put on my coat and headed for the door. With all the shitty news about pinhead racists having their champion in the White House and the near victory of a truly fascist party in Austria, the last thing I needed was to watch a character like Kenny in action for another hour and a half.

The irony is that the Dardennes have exactly the opposite sensibility of the young hustler Robin Pront, who is 30 years old and knows where the action is financially in the film industry. The gansta sensibility of the Tarantino genre will always attract investors since they know that mindless violence generates ticket sales among a better-educated market niche that has no idea how degraded they become by sitting through such a film.

Both in their sixties, the Dardenne brothers, have made films for the past 38 years, all of them with a moral and political sensibility that differentiate them from just about everybody making films today. As I wrote about “The Unknown Girl”, their most recent film, it examines the moral dilemmas facing people living in Belgian society where the possibilities of acting honorably are constrained by the capitalist system.

The unknown girl referred to in the title is a seventeen-year old prostitute from Africa who buzzes to be let into the medical offices of Dr. Jenny Davin an hour after office hours have closed. Since her office is in a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Lieges with more than enough patients to make regular hours exhausting in themselves, the refusal to open the door does not seem particularly portentous.

It could not be more unlike the recycled Tarantino garbage that Pront has made. But you can guess which film has the imprimatur of Belgium’s film establishment:

Yet again, Belgium has passed over the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “The Unknown Girl,” which played in competition at Cannes and will screen at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival. Instead, Belgium is submitting rookie director Robin Pront’s “The Ardennes,” a robbery-gone-wrong thriller that debuted at last year’s TIFF in the Discovery program and has been nominated for 10 Ensor Awards (September 16). It also made the shortlist for the European Film Awards.



November 29, 2016

Merci, Patron

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

I strongly urge New Yorkers to see “Merci, Patron”, a laugh-out-loud radical French documentary that has the power of a Molotov cocktail.

Described by the FIAF (French Institute Alliance Française) publicist as a Michael Moore-inspired documentary that “takes on the fashion industry, globalization, and the richest man in France in an entertaining, personal look at one of today’s biggest issues”, it will be screened one night only on Thursday, December first at 7:30pm in FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street (between Madison & Park).

Yes, it is inspired by Michael Moore but only so far. There is an obvious similarity to “Roger and Me” since the film starts off with Fakir journalist François Ruffin trying to meet Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH—the luxury goods conglomerate that originally started as a merger of Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy but grew to include many other products marketed to the wealthy. Like Roger Smith, Arnault gives Ruffin the cold shoulder.

One of the companies LVMH absorbed was Kenzo, which like nearly all the takeovers engineered by Arnault resulted in French workers being fired and production moved to low-wage Poland. Ruffin hones in on a group of workers in northern France who were made redundant in the Kenzo takeover. Like the auto workers in Flint, they are facing a grim future—particularly Serge Klur and his wife Jocelyn, a late middle aged couple. They have been reduced to penury and are in danger of losing the house they have lived in for thirty years.

The film revolves around Ruffin working with the Klurs to extort money from Arnault to put it bluntly. Unless he pays them the money they need to pay for their house and to help Serge get a permanent job, they will send letters to newspapers and left politicians bringing attention to their plight, making him look like a greedy bastard. Not only that, they will crash one of his glitzy fashion shows with workers from Goodyear, who were notorious for battling the cops in an effort to save 1,200 jobs in 2013.

Any resemblance between Ruffin and Moore is purely coincidental. It has not only never occurred to Moore to use a film as a tool for workers struggles; he continues to think in utopian terms about how the USA can become more like the “enlightened” French. In his 2015 “Where to Invade Next”, Moore interviews French children who are eating a healthy free lunch and asks the question why can’t the USA do the same. Needless to say, Moore has never paid attention to people like the Klurs nor taken his camera crew to the Calais Jungle where refugees were trying desperately to reach England.

Moore had high hopes for Barack Obama, who he obviously believed would become the European social democrat Fox News warned future Trump voters about. Ruffin has no such illusions. In one telling scene, he shows France’s Obama—the arch-neoliberal François Hollande—surrounded by LVMH executives in some publicity event flattering those who have imposed austerity on the French working class. He states that there is not much the Klurs can expect from the likes of Hollande.

Ruffin has little in common with the pro-Democratic Party comedians like Moore or the sorry lot that are seen each night on Comedy Central or HBO. He is an editor at Fakir magazine, one that I had not heard about previously. The money to make the film came from Fakir subscribers. Maybe Jacobin could think in terms of using its expanding empire to fund similar efforts.

Some commentators credit “Merci, Patron” as inspiring the Nuit debout movement, a protest against legislation designed to make the French labor market more “flexible”. Arnault, who is the richest man in France and the 12th richest person in the world, clearly understood what he was up against when he stated the following about the film: “LVMH is the illustration, the incarnation of the worst, according to these extreme leftist observers, of what the market economy produces.” If there’s hope for the French, let’s hope for ourselves as well.

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