Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 3, 2020

Shanghai Triad

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Tomorrow, a digitally restored version of the 1995 “Shanghai Triad” will be available on Virtual Cinema. For a $10 rental, you get a chance to see a film directed by Zhang Yimou, widely regarded as China’s greatest director.

Set in Shanghai in 1930 and within the triad milieu (drug gangs originating in the Boxer Rebellion), this is not the same genre that Hong Kong studios routinely churned out in the 60s and 70s. Instead, the two primary characters have only a tangential relation to the  gangsters, who are mostly secondary. One is a 14-year old boy named Shuisheng, whose uncle has brought to Shanghai for a job with the Tang clan. Unlike most mafia movies, the boy is not being trained to be a hitman. Instead, he is a servant to the boss’s mistress Bijou, who treats him like dirt. The gang’s godfather is a Tang, just like Shuisheng and his uncle. Like the Sicilian mafia, family ties go a long way in guaranteeing loyalty.

Throughout the film, Shuisheng is a passive observer of the chaos all about him. Bijou is not only abusive toward him, she also is in the habit of telling off boss Tang, a man in his sixties who does on the beautiful but churlish young woman, who is played by Gong Li—generally regarded as China’s greatest actress.

On his first day of work serving Bijou, Shuisheng makes the mistake of bringing tea and cakes into her bedroom without knocking first. She snarls at his lack of servant skills. She orders him to go out again and start over. He must knock first, and, while he is at it, announce himself as Shuisheng the bumpkin. Bijou is a nightmarish diva who performs as a songstress in boss Tang’s nightclub. If you’re familiar with Zhang Yimou’s body of work, you’ll know that he is a sucker for spectacle. Except for “Not One Less”, a great film about a young schoolteacher in China’s hinterland, his films are feasts for the eyes and ears. When Bijou performs, it is like being treated to a Chinese version of a Busby Berkeley musical.

Toward the middle of the film, boss Tang begins to play a bigger role after a rival gang launches a bloody raid on his estate that results in the death of Shuisheng’s uncle and others in his retinue. In keeping with Zhang’s overall approach, we don’t even see the rival gangs in combat. His interest is mostly in the tangled relationship between the boss and his mistress, and hers with the young and mostly passive servant who speaks no more than 25 words in the entire film. His acting skills are displayed entirely through his facial expressions.

After the raid, Tang takes Bijou, Shuisheng and a small detachment of his lieutenants to a remote island with zero amenities. Upon their arrival, Bijou begins to complain bitterly about being bored. Perhaps being tired of the gangster life, she begins to spend more time with Shuisheng, and a widowed mother and her young daughter, the sole inhabitants of the island. They live primitive but satisfying lives unlike the murderous gangsters who interfere with their peaceful conditions like Edward G. Robinson’s gang in “Key Largo”. We soon learn that Bijou was once a bumpkin like them, as the ties between them grow. She tells Shuisheng that once they return to Shanghai, he has to break with the gang and return to the countryside or else he will end up with his uncle.

The climax of the film consists once again of a showdown between the two gangs seen earlier but also, once again, sans pyrotechnics. Zhang’s main interest is in showing how the brutal, feudal-like society of Chinese triads make those at the bottom of the chain vulnerable. Unlike the Hong Kong actions films of the 60s and 70s, as great as they were, “Shanghai Triad” leaves you with the conclusion that wiping them out was one of the great gains of the revolution made by Mao Zedong.

In the press notes, Zhang is asked “What’s at stake in this film? Is the film a warning to the Chinese people with regard to their increasingly materialistic lifestyle?” His reply:

Absolutely. This story is the first time I have depicted a life of luxury and material wealth. In effect, I just wanted to say to my countrymen and to others that there is something more important than power and mere material possessions. What counts most in life is man’s capacity for love and generosity. That is why I did not want to make a traditional Mafia film. To my mind, this film speaks up for important issues.

July 29, 2020

The Shadow of Violence

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Opening on Friday, July 31, “The Shadow of Violence” is noteworthy both as a film and as a turning-point in cinema since it will be the first film I’ve reviewed since March 13th that is opening in physical theaters rather than as VOD, or what they call “virtual cinema” (venues listed below).

Based on Joe Murtagh’s adaptation of Irish author Colin Barrett’s “Young Skins,” first-time director Nick Rowland has made a somber film about the plight of Douglas “Arm” Armstrong, an enforcer for an Irish drug gang based in the western Irish countryside. From the beginning of the film, you expect things to end predictably on a tragic note but stay tuned in to Arm out of compassion for a man trying to break the chains fate has cast.

Acclaimed as an amateur boxer, Arm found it hard to resist going on the payroll of the Devers brothers. For doing nothing much except beating people up, he had job security and enough money to live on. Unlike Italy, the USA, Mexico or Colombia, the drug trade in rural Ireland will not make you rich. The two kingpins of the Devers family might be better labeled as pawnpins with their ratty clothes and shabby homes. Whatever they lack in wealth, they more than make up for in viciousness.

Early on in the film, Arm and his partner Dympna, a nephew to the Devers, are dispatched to punish an old man who came to a party they threw. When there, he supposedly raped a young female guest. With what appears to be a total absence of police in the town, punishment is dealt out as if it were the Old West and like in the Old West, men, especially rustlers, get lynched.

Arm has little trouble beating the living daylights out of the old man but is dismayed to discover that the Devers brothers view that as only the prelude. They order Arm to kill him, specifically by throwing him over a cliff. Arm might be capable of beating someone up (although he seems to get no pleasure out of it) but he has never killed anybody before, except in an amateur fight. He felt terrible remorse over a ring accident, so much so that he never went pro. With that trauma in his past, he was not up to the task of killing someone in cold blood. Of course, the consequence of defying his bosses’ orders could be fatal.

If he didn’t have enough on his hands dealing with the Devers, he is in one skirmish after another with his ex-girlfriend Ursula and their autistic son. Arm loves the boy but has trouble getting through to him. When we see him lose patience with the child, we chalk that up as a moral deficit but at least give him credit for wanting to be part of his life. Since Ursula would rather see him disappear because of his job as a drug gang’s enforcer, he has to work extra hard to get time with his son.

Arm is played by Cosmo Jarvis, a brawny British actor who has the same handsome but menacing features as Dwayne Johnson. For most of the film, he is impassive.  In hot water with his bosses over his failure to carry out a hit and his ex-girlfriend for his low-life ways, his anguish becomes hard to mask. Nick Rowland does an excellent job drawing out top-rate performances from his actors. In the director’s notes, he states:

The world of THE SHADOW OF VIOLENCE is energetic, eccentric and beautiful as much as it is dark and threatening. It is a place where violence or laughter could erupt at any moment. I loved how the audience are propelled forward by the youthful energy and spirit of the central characters. Above all else, I wanted to take the audience on a deeply emotional journey, as we explore this brutal world through the eyes of our deeply vulnerable protagonist, as he grapples with his conscience and desire to do what is best for his son.

I’d say he has succeeded admirably.

“The Shadow of Violence” can be seen in the following venues:

CITY   THEATER

Sarasota: Burns Court

KC: Screenland Armour

Chicago:
The Promenade at Bollingbrook
The Arboretum of South Barrington
Emagine Frankfort

Houston:
Ipic Theatres River Oaks District
Star Cinema Grill Baybrook
Star Cinema Grill Springwoods
Star Cinema Grill Richmond
Star Cinema Grill Cypress

Dallas  The Village at Fairview

Austin:
The Domain Austin
Lake Creek 7

Oklahoma City: Rodeo Cinema

Winchester VA: Alamo Winchester

Minneapolis:
Emagine Eagan 15
Emagine White Bear 17
Emagine Willow Creek 12

Fayettville AK: Razorback 16

Owensboro KY: Owensboro Cinema Grill

Southhaven MS: De Soto Cinema Grill

Ft Collins CO: Lyric Cinema

Salt Lake City:
Megaplex at The Gateway
Megaplex 18 at Thanksgiving Point
Megaplex at Jordan Commons

Ogden UT: Megaplex 13 at The Junction

July 25, 2020

Days of the Whale

Filed under: Colombia,Film — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Now available as virtual cinema, “Days of the Whale” is set in Medellin, Colombia and tells the story of two young street artists contending with street gangs. Given the provenance of both factions, it is not surprising that nearly the entire film takes place on the gritty streets of a city that will always be associated with Pablo Escobar and violence.

When I was in high school, my English teacher Fred Madeo, who was just one of a number of radical-minded faculty members keeping his politics close to his vest, clued us in on “Hedda Gabler”. He said that in act one, you see a pistol being handled by Hedda Gabler. Whenever you see a pistol, a knife, etc., in act one of a play, you are primed to expect some kind of tragedy by the final act.

In “Days of the Whale”, instead of a weapon, you get a gangster warning Simón (David Escallón Orrego), one of the film’s young co-stars, that unless he pays for the “right” to do art on the city’s walls, he might get killed. His girlfriend and fellow artist Cristina (Laura Tobón Ochoa) both put up brave fronts against this threat but you cannot help but feel that they are doomed. Even though most of the film shows them happily at work in an art form that is truly proletarian, you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Despite the threat of violence, this is really much more of a love story and a very good one at that. As much as they love each other, another threat hangs over their head, namely one of being separated through no fault of their own. Cristina’s mother is an investigative reporter whose opposition to the city’s gang world has forced her to move to Spain because of threats on her life. Simón, who comes from a working-class background and who even was a gang member when younger, is torn between loving her and anger over being abandoned. To fight against both threats, they put their heart and soul into their artwork as if each day was their last.

Neither of the co-stars are professional actors. The director-writer Catalina Arroyave Restrepo decided that this would give the film authenticity and she was right. In the press notes, she said that John Cassavetes’s films were an influence. It shows. Her statement on what motivated her to make “Days of the Whale” conveys the hunger of young Colombians for a different way of living in a country degraded by almost a century of dictatorship, corruption, and criminality:

I have always been obsessed with freedom, and that took me to write a story about my discontempt [sic] with that criminal reality and the desire of rebelling against it. I started fantasizing about using the stories that my graffiti artist friends told me about their adventures in the streets, dealing with the owners of each territory, and also with using the colors, rhythm and textures of this universe to make a film. That’s how Days of the whale was conceived.

Highly recommended.

July 19, 2020

Japan Cuts 2020

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

Like other film festivals I’ve reviewed since the pandemic began, this year’s Japan Cuts is virtual. While nothing will ever match the experience of see a film on the big screen among other film buffs, the show must go on as they say in a Busby Berkeley film—can’t remember which one. At $99 for the entire festival or $7 per film, it is certainly worth it. In the past, when I have covered a NY film festival, I always regretted that many of my out-of-town readers will never be able to take part. Fortunately, for them and for the filmmakers who put so much time, money and energy making leading-edge cinema, virtuality has its benefits. Time constraints did not allow me to cover more than four films but based on what I have seen, this festival is a must for film buffs. Japanese films have been a mainstay of serious cinema for the past seventy years and it is still going strong.

Documentaries

i -Documentary of the Journalist

Isoko Mochizuki is Japan’s Helen Thomas. Until she died in 2013, Thomas was famous for stubbornly asking tough questions during press conferences at the White House. Mochizuki is Thomas on steroids. The documentary follows her around collecting information for her next article in the Tokyo Shimbun, usually focused on corporate an governmental malfeasance. Under Shinzo Abe’s administration since 2012, corruption has been rife and she has been practically the only reporter with the guts to take on the establishment.

What you will discover in this mostly cinéma vérité work, which follows her about on her rounds and at press conferences, is that the Japanese government is shielded from the most part from gadflies like her. To get access to a press conference, you have to be part of an old boy’s network that keeps trouble-makers out. It is not so much ideological as it is institutional. Picture McNeil-Lehrer at its most soporific and you’ll get a sense of the typical Japanese reporter.

You can’t help but think of Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” as the film progresses. She has discovered that the USA has been expanding the Henoko military base in Okinawa at the expense of the people living there, which has been the case since 1609 when Japan colonized the island nation. To make room for its partner’s war machine, the government conveniently covered up how red dirt was being used for a landfill into the bay. Since red dirt upsets marine ecology, regulations do not permit using earth with more than 10 percent of red clay. In her interviews with environmental scientists in Okinawa, Mochizuki learned that it was closer to 70 percent.

Much of the film consists of her trying to pin down Abe’s chief spokesman at press conferences, Yoshihide Suga. Suga is a master of stonewalling, making most of Trump’s mouthpieces looking transparent by comparison. Unlike the American press corps that has any number of reporters willing to challenge Trump or his lackies, it devolved upon Mochizuki to challenge the lies.

Although most of us, including me, tend to associate Trump with people like Duterte and Bolsonaro, an argument can be made that his real soulmate is Shinzo Abe. After seeing the film, I was convinced that I had to allocate time for getting up to speed on Japanese politics since the Abe government has vowed to make Japan a first-rate military power. As part of its increasingly nationalistic military and economic posture, Japan has targeted South Korea in the same way that the USA has targeted China. An article titled “Forget Putin and Kim. Trump’s real soulmate lives in Tokyo” describes the bromance between the two nationalistic and corrupt politicians:

That Abe is now borrowing from Trump’s playbook on trade should come as little surprise. The two leaders have established a positive chemistry that is evident during their long and frequent meetings. When Trump visited Japan in May for the enthronement of the country’s new emperor, the two leaders embraced each other, sharing a round of golf, sushi, sumo wrestling and exchange of MAGA-inspired caps. Abe is known to be one of a few Western leaders Trump is fond of.

Reiwa Uprising

Although I didn’t plan my coverage this way, this film is a perfect companion piece to “i -Documentary of the Journalist”. It is a four-hour mostly cinéma vérité look at the election campaign of the Reiwa Shinsengumi (“new squad”) party that fielded 10 candidates to run against the Abe machine in 2019.

Reiwa can best be described as Japan’s version of the sort of guerrilla theater Abby Hoffman made famous in the 1960s. If Abe’s party was determined to represent itself as the embodiment of Japan’s largely militaristic and authoritarian culture, Reiwa turned that culture upside down and ran candidates who were the country’s outcasts and underdogs.

The star of the film is candidate Ayumi Yasutomi, a female transgender Tokyo University professor whose hobby is horseback riding. To show her love for horses that represent the natural world disappearing beneath Japan’s feet, she was accompanied by a horse at all her campaign appearances. Yasutomi’s politics are not exactly ideological. At one point she says that Marxism, liberalism and conservatism have failed Japan. If she was referring to the Japanese Communist Party, I suppose she had a point.

Two of the candidates were quadriplegics, who also happened to be the only two that were elected to the Diet, thus making Reiwa an official party.

The film was directed by Kazuo Hara, who like Isoko Mochizuki has no use for Shinzo Abe’s retrograde social and economic policies. Like Werner Herzog, Hara is drawn to those who are square pegs in bourgeois society’s round holes. Made in 1972, his first film “Goodbye CP” featured men and women with cerebral palsy. His 1987 “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” features Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old WWII veteran who searches out those responsible for the unexplained deaths of two soldiers in his old unit. Errol Morris listed it as one of his Top 5 Favorite Films for Rotten Tomatoes. After seeing his latest, I hope to see more of his work. Highest recommendation for “Reiwa Uprising” that at four hours goes quicker than 90 percent of the films coming out of Hollywood.

Narrative films

The Murders of Oiso

Although people are killed in this film, it is really not a murder mystery. Instead, it is a character study of four high-school students who represent the kind of toxic values that might explain to some degree how Shinzo Abe has become longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history.

Their time is spent hanging out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and playing cards. Perhaps, they are no different than most teens but it is their indifference to anything outside their narrow frame of reference that makes you wonder about the health of Japanese society. Indeed, a large part of Reiwa’s success at the polls has to do with the country’s moral and spiritual rot.

The leader of the pack is a kid named Kazuya, whose father and uncle are partner’s in a crooked construction company, probably one not much different than the one pouring red dirt in to the water near the US military base in Okinawa. Kazuya gets his three pals jobs with the company but they seem to spend about as much time working as the guys that Tony Soprano placed in various New Jersey unionized shops.

The film does not have a conventional narrative arc and dispenses with the kind of suspense you expect in a murder mystery. (Not a single cop shows up in the entire film.) Like the two documentaries above, it is much more of a critical eye on Japanese society that is very much watching if you forgive its defiance of conventional filmmaking gestures.

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp

The festival includes three of the Tora-San films as part of a retrospective. I was especially interested in them since I regard the director/screenwriter Yoji Yamada as one of Japan’s greatest. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had hopes that it might have been in the same vein as his samurai trilogy that I regard as a masterpiece.

I guess I should have realized that any film with “our loveable tramp” in the title is not going to be about sword fights. Instead, it features Kiyoshi Atsumi as Toro-san in just one of the 48 films Yamada did with him in this series from 1969 to 1995. Perhaps the only thing that Toro-san has in common with the samurai, especially after the Meiji restoration when they became itinerant swords-for-hire, is that he is rootless. He is a traveling salesman who owns nothing but the clothes on his back and his suitcase filled with dubious wares, none of which would qualify for an ad on a cable TV commercial at 3am in the morning.

As for being “loveable”, that’s used ironically since like Charlie Chaplin, Toro-san is anything but. Just as the little tramp was not above turning a dinner party into a food-fight, Toro-san always finds a way to antagonize people, always with no awareness of the consequence of his actions.

After returning to the town where he was born, he reunites with his long-lost sister who he hasn’t seen in twenty years. When he accompanies her to a dinner party hosted by the boss of the company where she works (she is soon to become engaged to his son), Toro-san gets drunk and starts to tell off-color jokes and generally embarrassing his sister. If you’ve seen Borat in action, you’ll get an idea of what kind of mischief his character is capable of.

Unlike Borat, Toro-san has an epiphany toward the end of the film when he discovers that the woman he loves has plans to marry someone much higher-up on the social ladder. Although the Toro-san films are comedies, they do reflect Japan’s strict class-based social codes that the anti-hero defies with abandon. Ironically, in his own way, he was the kind of film character that prefigured the Reiwa uprising. A man sick and tired of hierarchy, materialism and hypocrisy.

June 30, 2020

Eating Up Easter

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Available today on Music Box Virtual Cinema, “Eating Up Easter” documents the difficult balancing act that the Rapanui people have to carry out on Easter Island. They live 2,500 miles from Chile and walk a tightrope with their culture on one side and global capitalism on the other. Capitalism makes the tourist industry possible, allowing them to enjoy a higher standard of living than other Chileans (Chile annexed the island in 1877), but that also poses real threats to their culture, both through the trash that tourists leave on the island and the rampant consumerism new-found wealth brings. For those who have been following Cuba’s opening up to the tourist industry ever since the “special period”, the mixed blessings will be obvious.

Directed by the Rapanui husband-and-wife team of Sergio and Elena Rapu, the film features native peoples who are highly representative of the island’s trajectory. His father Sergio senior was a college-educated archaeologist and Rapanui’s first native governor. He decided to push strongly for integration with Chile and making the island “successful” economically. Part of that meant his abandoning archaeology and becoming a real estate developer. We see him supervising the construction of the first shopping mall on the island

We also meet Enrique Icke and Mahani Teave, a young husband and wife who see music as a way of preserving their culture. Enrique is also a trained engineer and anxious to solve the island’s environmental challenges, part of which entails building a music school with recycled material like beer bottles and automobile tires.

Finally, the most compelling character is a septuagenarian native woman called Mama Piru who is fiercely committed to Green values. Like Honduras’s Berta Cáceres, she won’t take no for an answer when it comes to ecological sustainability. Unlike the martyred Cáceres, the threat she faces is not assassination but being overwhelmed by capital’s power to transform “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.” That was how Marx put it in “The Communist Manifesto”. Unfortunately, some Marxists today view that as progressive per se when in fact a return to “ancient and venerable” practices carried out by precapitalist societies must be considered especially when it comes to respect for Mother Nature.

In 1993, the Rapanui people became integrated into capitalist property relations in the most unexpected manner. Kevin Costner came to Easter Island with a massive production crew to make “Rapa-Nui”, a film that required practically every islander to be used as an extra. At $40 a day, they hit the jackpot.

The film depicts the islanders as victims of their own anti-environmentalist practices, with deforestation resulting from the building of the huge statues called moai. The only criticism I have of the film is the directors’ failure to counter this oft-cited explanation of how Easter Island became a case study in not respecting Mother Nature.

In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you get the same version of the island’s decline as in Costner’s idiotic film but without the soundtrack and cinematic panache.

One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises of the mainstream account of Easter Island is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo’s Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide”. In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of “ecocide” in human history, a product of the folly of the island’s rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the “imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation.”

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island’s collapse is a fiction in keeping with Costner’s film.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island’s population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place — leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

“Eating Up Easter” is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. The islanders are wrestling with the same contradictions as the rest of the planet. At one point, Enrique Icke has a conversation with an environmental consultant who scoffs at the idea that the Green renewal projects on Rapanui are of much use to countries with five million people. (Rapanui has 7,750 citizens.) Enrique defends the tiny islands role as an example of what can be done once the entire society is behind a Green transformation. Seen as a laboratory for the projects this planet much undertake for its survival, the example set by the people of “Eating Up Easter” is a good place to start.

June 26, 2020

The Last Tree, Madagasikara

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

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 26, 2020

Two new films debut as Virtual Cinema today. Both address the hopes and the suffering of Africans, both in diaspora and on the continent.

“The Last Tree” is a coming-of-age story about Femi, a Nigerian boy growing up in a British housing estate. Despite the word “estate”, these buildings have much in common with housing projects in the USA and Paris’s banlieues. Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire as a result of negligence, was part of a housing estate. Coming-of-age films are not my favorite genre. “The Last Tree” soars above any I have seen since the sixties and is sure to be one of my picks for best films of 2020.

“Madagasikara,” the Malagasy name for Madagascar, documents the struggle for survival in an island nation just 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. This is a country of 26 million people with a per capita GDP of $471 per year, about half of Haiti’s. Although most people are aware of how Haiti became so poor, very little is known about Madagascar’s steep decline. Real income is only a third of what it was fifty years ago and imperialism is to blame.

Continue reading

June 23, 2020

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Peter Medak is an 82-year old director who went through the harrowing experience of working with Peter Sellers in a comedy titled “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” in 1974. Like Ishmael quoting Job in the final page of “Moby Dick”, his latest film about this fiasco could have ended with the same words rolling across the screen before the closing credits: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Titled “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”, Medak’s documentary reunites all the survivors who went through this experience with him. They exchange atrocity tales about working with Sellers on a movie that never should have been made in the first place. Octogenarians like Medak, they bring a wealth of experience about filmmaking over long careers. If “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was a colossal flop, you can credit it with one of its redeeming features. It inspired a documentary that will be of keen interest to anybody who loves film. It will make you appreciate the efforts that go into a film production that is difficult enough in the first place. When your star is a complete madman like Peter Sellers, it turns into a ticking time-bomb.

In 1974, Medak was a relative newcomer to directing films, with four credits to his name, including “The Ruling Class” that is described on the Turner Classic Movies website as a commercial failure that became a cult classic. The words commercial failure do not begin to do justice to “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that never made it into theaters. Columbia shit-canned it after seeing the director’s cut. It was stillborn but should have been aborted after the first week of filming.

The screenplay was written by Spike Milligan, who was Peter Sellers’s partner in a long-running BBC radio show called “The Goon Show” that I used to listen to on WBAI centuries ago when it was still a great radio station. The show incorporated ludicrous plots with surreal humor and bizarre sound effects. It was the inspiration for future comedy shows like Monty Python and Firesign Theater.

The documentary includes many excerpts from “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that strike me as an early attempt at making something like “Pirates of the Caribbean” but with far less success. As the pirate captain, Sellers in a fright wig comes across as if he were performing in one of the more stupid SNL sketches. With Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers having much more leverage on the production than Medak, the whole thing struck me as a vanity project gone very, very wrong. Like the Pequod in “Moby Dick”, the ship featured in “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was doomed from the start.

The portrait of Peter Sellers as an actor and a human being is what makes this film so compelling. As the greatest comic actor of our generation who had the fame and power of Charlie Chaplin in an earlier era, he comes across as a total asshole. When Medak and Sellers first get together in a Mediterranean villa to discuss how they would approach the film, Sellers spots a Who’s Who book on a nearby shelf. He then picks it up and finds entries for the film’s producers who he then orders to be fired. Given his superstar power, he got his way just as he got his way through the entire production, making one bad decision after another.

If his domineering style wasn’t bad enough in itself, it was made worse by his indifference to the film’s outcome. He routinely came late to meetings, antagonized the crew and generally acted more as a saboteur than a team player. In one stunning episode, he feigned a heart attack during a scene so that he could return to England ostensibly for treatment. Medak was shocked to see Sellers on the front page of a British tabloid coming out of a restaurant with Princess Margaret.

Hobbled by a sloppily conceived script, the film encountered insurmountable technical problems based on the misguided attempt to film at sea in an ancient boat that had been retrofitted to look like a 17th century pirate ship. Out on the sea filming the entire day, the crew and the cast were beset by seasickness. Made long before digital cameras were available, the boat had to tow a smaller boat equipped with a generator to power the cameras.

Medak is the star of his own film, using it as a kind of psychotherapy to purge what amounts to a major trauma. With the wisdom of his advanced age and that of the other men and women who worked on the film, he offers an object lesson in the art of filmmaking. While it is easy to understand why you might watch Kurosawa or Godard in film school, this documentary should be must-viewing in film schools across the world. Medak and the production team made this film in order to get paid. Unlike writing a novel or a poem, filmmaking is part business and part art. It was obvious that all the participants were anxious to make this film because Sellers was so bankable. It turned out that he was as bankable as Lehman Brothers in 2008, at least when it came to a misbegotten project like “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”.

The film opened today on Amazon Prime. It will likely be one of my nominations for best documentary of 2020.

June 20, 2020

2020 Socially Relevant Film Festival–the Virtual Cinema reboot

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

On Friday, March 13th, CounterPunch published my survey of films appearing at the 2020 Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York. On the following Monday, I received word that all of the festival theaters were shutting down because of the pandemic. I am reposting my article to give you an idea of what will now be available as part of the Virtual Cinema reboot of the festival. At six dollars per film, you will be able to see some leading edge narrative and documentary films.

Click the image above or the festival home page to get scheduling information for the screenings that begin next Tuesday. I have been covering the festival since its inception in 2013 and feel that this is the best one in a series of really great alternatives to the mindless, violent and commercially-driven Hollywood products.

My CounterPunch review:

Feature films

Good Morning

In 1981, Louis Malle made a film titled “My Dinner With Andre” that had a cast of two: Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. They wrote the screenplay and played semi-fictional versions of themselves. During the entire 111 minutes, the cameras were trained on the two as they sat eating and chatting at Café Des Artistes, a luxurious restaurant on the upper west side. Despite defying Hollywood film conventions across the board, the film impressed Roger Ebert enough to name it best of the year.

“Good Morning,” a Lebanese film, is this year’s “My Dinner With Andre.” Every morning an 80-year-old former General in the Lebanese army and an 84-year-old military doctor meet at a coffee shop in Beirut to spend time working on crossword puzzles together. They, like me (I am a bit younger), enjoy doing such puzzles both intellectually and therapeutically. They hope that by exercising the brain, they will stave off dementia just as jogging or bicycling will stave off heart disease.

Unlike “My Dinner With Andre,” which featured Andre Gregory as a flamboyant raconteur and Shawn as his timid interlocutor, the dialog between the General and the doctor is far more mundane. The drama, however, flows from their uphill battle against declining cognitive and physical abilities that puts their long-time friendship into bold relief. They become Everymen facing the inevitability of death just Max Von Sydow’s Knight faced off Death, the hooded chess master in “The Seventh Seal.”

Each day, the General habitually approaches total strangers in the coffee shop to ask them if they’d like to hear a joke. For most of the film, we don’t make too much of this since we accept this as the attempt of an elderly man to enjoy interaction with younger people, even if fleetingly. Toward the end, he begins to overstay his welcome at tables to the point that the doctor warns them that it has become a sickness with him. The look of consternation on the hapless General’s face is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Against the human drama taking place within the four walls of the coffee shop, Lebanon is sinking into the regional crisis. Suicide bombers attack every so often while Syrian refugees beg on the street beneath them. Like most old-timers, they are nostalgic for the Lebanon of their youth. When they are not working on crossword puzzles or sharing their latest medical complaint with each other, they sing classic Arabic songs.

Considering the likelihood that the director Bahij Hojeij used an actual coffee shop and modest technical gear to make “Good Morning,” this film would educate aspiring filmmakers that a work of art does not require a $10 million budget. It requires instead deep humanist instincts and a flair for storytelling, traits that remain priceless.

Lorik

With a Russian director (Alexey Zlobin) and a mixed Russian and Armenian cast, “Lorik” tells the story of a middle-aged actor in Yerevan that Freud would have diagnosed as a case of extreme narcissistic disorder. He cares nothing about the people around him and only expects them to cater to his needs. When a makeup artist is a bit late supplying him with the fake nose he needs to play Cyrano de Bergerac, he throws a tantrum. Upon further reflection, you might say that in the world of actors and actresses, he is fairly normal.

His world is turned upside down when he learns that the local government has decided to renovate his beloved theater. Robbed of a stage where he is in complete control, he makes the mistake of ordering the construction crew to cease and desist. Unaware that goons from the local government are providing security at the site, he gets the heave-ho and lands on his head on the pavement below the theater. When he regains consciousness, he is shocked to discover that people no longer see him as Lorik the famous actor. In their eyes, he has become Johnik, a parking garage attendant his neighbors regard as the village idiot.

Through some sort of supernatural process, Lorik—so used to playing larger-than-life characters like Cyrano—is now transforming into real-life characters who represent the social contradictions of Armenian society, both male and female, young and old. Among the youngest is a bed-ridden girl who requires costly surgery to recover from a serious illness. Not long after he sheds her “role,” he turns into the crooked politician who ordered the closing of the theater. He plans to turn into headquarters for his nationalist party.

Whether or not the screenwriter Michael Poghosian, who also plays Lorik, intended it or not, the film has a strong affinity with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Lorik is Scrooge and the sickly girl is Tiny Tim. In the course of stepping into the roles of Yerevan’s divided society that overthrew a nationalist oligarchy last year, Lorik experiences redemption. Poghosian is excellent as Lorik. Despite my impatience with magical realism in other films, I found “Lorik” altogether enchanting.

Documentaries

Microplastic Madness

Like Greta Thunberg taking on the fossil fuel energy producers, the fifth graders in PS15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn are taking on the fossil fuel plastic manufacturers threatening marine life.

Like most kids, they love whales and other creatures living in the ocean. When their teacher takes them on a field trip to Jamaica Bay, they are disgusted to see all the plastic garbage strewn across the beach and in nearby bushes. They are even more disgusted to learn that the plastic stiffens under years of sunlight and then fragments into tiny particles. Swept up by the tides and into the ocean’s depth, the fish cannot distinguish them from food. Consequently, they eat them and perish. All in the name of a corporation’s bottom line.

Seeing the interaction between the students, mostly black and Latino, and their dedicated teacher, you wonder why can’t every school in the USA be following their example. They examine plastic fibers under a microscope connected to an Apple laptop. Imagine the most exciting science project that ever took place in your school and you’ll get an idea of the intellectual and political energy taking place at PS15. I taught fifth grade for a week in 1968 and would have stuck with it if I had the training to teach science to kids like these.

In addition to chronicling the intellectual odyssey of these youngsters, the film is also a primer on plastic pollution in the oceans. The website has information on the movement to reduce plastics in New York City that resulted in the elimination of Styrofoam in their school and plastic shopping bags in local grocery stores. The task of building a sustainable society will require a crusade against petrochemical energy and plastics companies. We are fortunate to have kids like Greta Thunberg and these fifth graders on the front lines.

Undermined: Tales form the Kimberley

The Kimberley is the northernmost of the nine regions of Western Australia. Bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean, Aboriginals make up forty percent of the population. The documentary describes their efforts to defend their homeland against mining companies and corporate agriculture. For those who have been following the struggles of the Lakota in the U.S.A. and the Wet’suwe’en in Canada against energy company incursions, seeing this film will help you understand that they are global in character.

Like Montana, Wyoming, and other rugged western states, Kimberley is a magnet for billionaires who buy land by the thousands of acres and build luxurious ranch estates. Ted Turner owns two million acres and fifteen ranches in 10 different states. Australian versions of Ted Turner have also moved in on Kimberley. Worth $15 billion, mining company owner Gina Rinehart is at the forefront of “developing” Western Australia. She was involved with a secessionist movement that would allow capitalists to exploit the region’s valuable natural resources at a faster rate than the government in Canberra would allow.

Besides her, the Aboriginals also have to contend with Kerry Stokes, who has major investments in mining and media companies. He is also a big-time rancher like Ted Turner. Stokes bought 1,563 square miles of land in the Kimberley and then stocked it with 20,000 head of Red Brahman cattle worth up to 40 million Australian dollars. To give you an idea of his commitment to environmental values, Stokes is on record as stating that the fires that raged last year in Australia do not have much to do with climate change.

Gratefully, the film does not pay much attention to such characters. It mostly allows Aboriginals, some of whom are small ranchers devoted to a pastoral lifestyle, to make the case for keeping predatory big businessmen out. If memory serves me correctly, this film gives Australia’s indigenous people the biggest opportunity to speak for their culture than any I have ever seen in a film.

Speaking most eloquently for the Aboriginal cause, Albert Wiggan seemed to be poised to enjoy the benefits of urban life as a college graduate and a professional. Instead, he returned to Kimberley and became a tribune of a struggle to maintain a civilization that goes back thousands of years. He belongs to the Bardi-Kija-Nyul Nyul people who live near Cygnet Bay on the Dampier Peninsula. When the government tried to build the world’s largest LNG plant at James Price Point, he lobbied the Supreme Court and led a blockade until the developer withdrew from the project. He now works as an environmental consultant with the Nyul Nyul Rangers and is Deputy Chair of the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project. Like the fifth graders in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he is on the front lines of the struggle to make this planet livable for thousands of years into the future. Like “Microplastic Madness,” “Undermined” is a powerful tool on its behalf.

Stonewall With A ‘T’

Directed by Samy Nemir Olivares, a gay Puerto Rican immigrant and media activist, this film examines the rift between transgender people and the gay movement in the years following the Stonewall riot. While you are accustomed to seeing the case for LGBT rights today, for a number of years the T was absent.

Despite being sympathetic to transgender rights, gay men in leadership positions felt that legislators in both Albany and Washington would not pass a bill that included gender identity. The irony, as the film points out, is that it was transgender women who finally stood up and resisted the cops back in 1969.

Stonewall was not a club patronized by closeted stockbrokers or lawyers. Owned by the Mafia, it was popular with the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community. They were up-front about their identity: butch lesbians, effeminate young men, drag queens, male prostitutes, transgender people, and homeless youth.

The film celebrates the leading roles played by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, black and Latina transgender activists who were to the transgender movement that Harvey Milk was to the gay movement. To get an idea of the oceanic gulf between a Tim Cook and such people, I recommend a Washington Post article that celebrates Stonewall :

Sylvia Rivera even credited Johnson with saving her life — a life marked by hellish trials from the beginning. Her father abandoned her at birth, and her mother killed herself when she was 3. As a child, Rivera would try on her grandmother’s clothes and makeup, and was beaten when caught. By 11, she was a runaway and child prostitute.

She met Johnson on the streets in 1963, when she was still a preteen.

“She was like a mother to me,” Rivera said later. Johnson gave Rivera a measure of stability and love she had never experienced.

There are many stories about what Johnson and Rivera did in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall riots erupted. Almost everyone agrees they were there. One legend has Johnson throwing the first “shot glass heard around the world”; another has her throwing the first brick. Stonewall historian David Carter concluded it was “extremely likely” that Johnson was among the first people to resist the police.

June 19, 2020

Icelandic Noir

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iceland,television — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 19, 2020

Over the past couple of months, I have been bingeing on Netflix like most house-bound CounterPunchers. In case you haven’t seen them yet, I highly recommend two series that originated on Iceland television: The Valhalla Murders and Trapped. Both are close relatives to the Swedish Marxist detective stories that I reviewed on CounterPunch in 2014. They succeed both as social commentary and art.

What’s surprising is that a tiny nation (364,134, a population smaller than Wichita, Kansas) can produce the type of television drama that not only competes with Sweden’s but leaves HBO and Showtime in the dust. After reviewing the two TV series and a couple of Icelandic films that also merit watching during these pandemic social isolation days, I’ll conclude with some thoughts about Iceland that CounterPunch author and Iceland citizen José Tirado helped stimulate.

Continue reading

June 17, 2020

Seadrift; The Pollinators

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

In 1979, the village of Seadrift, Texas, about 3 ½ hours south of Houston, became a major focus of TV and newspaper coverage when clashes between Vietnamese and native-born fishermen climaxed with Sau Van Nguyen shooting Billy Joe Aplin to death. This in itself was enough to make the headlines but when a jury found Sau not guilty, the shit really hit the fan. Seadrift, already a magnet for the KKK because of earlier violent but non-fatal clashes, became a battleground between two camps that superficially had the same goals, to become wealthy fishing for crabs and shrimp just like Gary Sinise’s character in “Forrest Gump”.

Directed by Tim Tsai, a Chinese-American, it relies on interviews with surviving members of both camps, including Billy Joe Aplin’s daughter who in the closing moments of the film states that none of this would have happened if the US never invaded Vietnam in the first place. Since the Vietnamese fishermen in Seadrift were fleeing Vietnam, you might think that they’d have a lot in common with their Texas counterparts who must have been just as anti-Communist as them, including several who were Vietnam veterans.

However, the search for profit tends to trump ideology—in this case access to fishing grounds. Unlike farming or ranching, there is no such thing as property rights. You go out in the water and throw your nets wherever you please. The native-born fishermen would have resented the newcomers just for competing over a limited resource but all the more so when they began casting their traps in the same location as they regarded as their own turf. At first the crab traps owned by the Vietnamese were trashed behind their backs. When they began to show up en masse to defend what they saw as their private property, the fight escalated to the point of bullets fired into each others’ hulls.

To the credit of the native-born, they eventually repudiated the KKK in a remarkable town meeting. Now in their sixties and seventies, they look back on this period as escalating out of control largely because of an inability to respect each other’s identity and rights.

In an interview with the Madison, Wisconsin Cap Times, Tsai draws parallels with today’s problems. “As I was editing the film, it was just surreal to see that what the KKK was saying back then was almost word for word what the alt right is saying today against immigrants and refugees. It’s just a different group (being targeted).” I had the same reaction.

(“Seadrift” is currently available as a DVD. Check First Run Features for word on its availability as VOD).

As the title implies, “The Pollinators” is all about the threat of extinction facing honey bees, which in turn threatens our own survival since one-third of all fruits and vegetables rely on their pollination.

Although I have been reading any number of articles about the honey bee decline in recent years, this deeply informative and politically urgent documentary contained many new revelations, starting with the fact that most pollination taking place today is not done by “free range” honey bees but by commercial firms that transport truckloads of hives to customers, mostly in California, who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure that their almonds, apples, apricots, etc. can bear fruit.

However, since fruit orchards tend to face any number of threats to the trees even reaching the point of bearing flowers, including insects and fungus, they rely on chemicals to ward them off. If you’ve been following reports on the demise of honey bees, you are probably aware that neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide, are seen as likely cause. What the film reveals is that they replaced organophosphates that were so harmful to farmworkers. Unfortunately, they are much worse for the bees since they only begin to degrade after a couple of years while organophosphates degrade within days.

In addition, despite the loving care that professional beekeepers provide for their “workers”, they are not as hardy as “free range” bees that grow robust from being near wild foliage such as clover, etc. The film reveals that most of the U.S.A. bread basket interior has been turned into a vast monocrop source of soybeans and corn that might be of commercial value but of none to the reproduction of hives.

The last half-hour of the film is devoted to the coverage of regenerative farming that seeks to reconnect the main pillars of pre-capitalist farming, including a diverse combination of crops, the restoration of native grasses, livestock, and bees all working together to create healthy food.

As someone who has seen and reviewed well over 25 documentaries on ecology for the past twenty years, I would put “The Pollinators” at the top of those I consider essential. It can be rented from all the usual sources. Just Google/Video “The Pollinators” and the links will appear.

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