Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 25, 2020

Three political films on-demand

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

With very little coverage in either the capitalist or left media, “The Man Who Mends Women” is a wake-up call to what is one of the greatest assaults on human rights today, the assaults on women in the remote eastern hinterlands of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, once known as Zaire. The subject of the documentary is Doctor Denis Mukwege, who received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2014 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his struggle against sexual violence. He has provided free treatment to 46,000 sexually abused women in twenty years of professional practice.

Although the film does not take a political stance as such, it cannot but help point out that Hutu fighters and refugees fleeing the Tutsi reconquest of Rwanda have wreaked havoc in the peasant villages of South Kivu, a region in the DRC just west of Rwanda. Unlike the case of ISIS raping Yazidi women out of some warped commitment to Wahhabist beliefs, there is little evidence of Hutu depravity flowing from ideology. Instead, it simply appears that hatred of women motivates these soldiers to victimize women in the most sadistic fashion. Much of the film tracks Mukwege in the operating room where he is trying to surgically repair a young woman who had a bayonet stuck up her vagina.

Made in 2015 by a team of French filmmakers sympathetic to Denis Mukwege’s work, “The Man Who Mends Women” is not easy to take. Nonetheless, it is an important film to watch since it will give you some insights into the misery of a country that is potentially the richest in Africa. There is a fleeting reference to the extraction of cobalt that is essential to the manufacture of iPhones.

In a 2017 article, Vox pointed out the incestuous relationship between Apple and a Chinese company that suggests the spirit of King Leopold still hovers over the Congo:

Reports that major corporations such as Apple, Sony, and Samsung use cobalt sourced from so-called “artisanal” mines — small-scale mines where workers use the most basic tools — with little to no labor regulations in the DRC have come out for years. The Sky News investigation found children as young as 4 years old working in the mines, crippling health issues linked to fumes, and pay equivalent to around a dime for a day’s worth of backbreaking labor.

One of the most prominent players in the flow of cobalt from Africa to manufacturers in Asia is Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company. The Chinese company is the largest buyer of artisanal cobalt in the DRC and supplies most of the world’s biggest battery makers, including Apple.

While Doctor Mukwege sticks mostly to medicine and human rights, it is clear that he understands the economic plight of his nation. He refers to it as a jewelry store without any security guards.

The film can be rented from ArtMattan, its distributor.

In 1972, when the 60s radicalization was still going strong, 10,000 African-Americans met in Gary, Indiana for the National Black Political Convention. On hand for the event, the Black documentary filmmaker William Greaves made “NationTime” that until now was only available as a heavily-edited 60-minute version. The full 80-minute film is now available from Kino-Lorber and owes it existence to a serendipitously discovery in a warehouse in Gary in 2018.

Greaves made more than 200 documentary films in a long and distinguished career. In the 1960s, he was the executive producer of Black Journal, a PBS show that was far more radical than anything that can be seen there today. In his spare time, he made experimental films like “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” that NY Times critic Manohla Dargis called “highly entertaining and, at moments, revelatory about filmmaking as a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavor”. The film can be seen for free on Youtube.

“NationTime” is done in cinéma vérité style. With his camera trained on men and women making speeches as well as participants networking in the lobby during breaks, you get a bare-bones introduction to one of the most promising political developments from my generation. There’s a fiery speech by Jesse Jackson basically calling for Blacks to get a bigger share of the pie but the most politically powerful one is by Mayor Richard Hatcher who in welcoming the throng made a powerful case for a Black political party. He said that the black vote could no longer be counted on and that a new party would not only serve black interests but those of left-out America, from Latinos to young white radicals.

It is tragic that nothing came of this. If you listen to the speeches carefully, especially Jackson’s, you’ll come away with the conclusion that the convention was meant to extract concessions and not much else. I recommend Lee Sustar’s article in Socialist Worker newspaper, where he writes:

The illusion of Black unity was destroyed at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., on March 10-12, 1972. Attended by over 8,000 people, the convention marked the first large-scale gathering of the various currents in Black politics: radical nationalists, cultural nationalists, socialists, Maoists and Black Democratic elected officials. The conference was hosted by Hatcher, one of the Black elected officials whose numbers had risen fourfold to 1,860 between 1967 and 1971.

The promises of continued support for the Democrats were not enough to stop a walkout by the convention’s Michigan delegation. These delegates, many of whom were NAACP leaders and trade union officials, were worried that any association with the National Black Political Agenda would damage their relationship to the Michigan Democratic Party.

Ironically, both the failure of the National Black Political Convention and the International Socialist Organization to sustain a long-term oppositional posture is a sign of how difficult it is to withstand pressures on the left in the most backward industrialized country in the world.

“The Radium Girls” is a narrative film about the young women who painted the dials on glow-in-the-dark wristwatches in the 1920s. Like “NationTime”, it can be rented from Kino-Lorber.

Set in New Jersey, its main characters are Italian-American sisters who worked for many such companies at that time, earning a penny a for each dial they painted. Bessie Cavallo (Joey King) is always getting bad job reviews because she doesn’t put a fine point on her brush by licking it. The foreman lectures her about the sloppy work. Meanwhile her sister Josephine (Abby Quinn) makes the grade because she, like most of the women, follows company rules. They had another sister named Marie who also worked at the plant until she died a couple of years earlier. The cause, according to a company doctor, was syphilis—the false diagnosis they used to avoid lawsuits.

After Josephine starts showing the same symptoms as Marie, Bessie looks for help. The only person willing to spend time and energy to find out what’s wrong with her sister is Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a Communist Party member who also has a romantic interest. Walt introduces her to a woman working for a nonprofit defending women’s rights on the job as well as social events thrown by the party. Bessie is anxious to get help from the leftists on how to make the company pay for its willful neglect but not so much about proletarian revolution.

The film is worth seeing but there are some artistic decisions that undercut its power. To start with, there is a saccharine film score that hardly meshes with the deadly subject matter. Just as wrong-headed was the decision to give the film a flowery, pastel-shaded look with costumes and homes looking like something out of Masterpiece Theater or Merchant-Ivory rather than the lives of women making a penny a product in a factory.

Other than that, the film is fairly faithful to the history. This is not the first film made about the grandmother of all occupational hazard stories. According to Wikipedia, there have been over twenty fictional accounts of the Radium Girls story, including one that is real eye-opener. Titled “Nothing Sacred”, this 1937 screwball comedy was written by Ben Hecht with input from Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman.

“Nothing Sacred” is about a radium girl named Hazel Flagg who is supposed to be dying. A reporter goes to interview her. But when he tracks her down, she is distraught to have learned from her doctor that she is not dying. She despairs from the prospect that she might be stuck in Vermont for the rest of her life. Screwball comedy indeed. See for yourself on YouTube.

October 19, 2020

The Big Scary “S” Word

Filed under: DSA,Film,Jacobin,reformism — louisproyect @ 9:44 pm

A half-century ago when our horizons seemed unlimited, Socialist Workers Party members were delighted to see a movie about our party shown at Oberlin College, where our yearly conferences took place. It was directed by party member (or perhaps fellow-traveler) Nick Castle whose Wikipedia page does not even mention the word socialism. Nick’s claim to fame was playing Michael Meyers in the first of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” movies and then becoming a director himself with credits like “The Last Starfighter” and “Dennis the Menace” to his name. I can’t remember anything about the SWP documentary but can at least state that its irrational exuberance reflected our self-importance at the time. Not only did someone with Hollywood credentials want to tell a story about us, we also managed to score a profile in the Sunday Times Magazine section written by Walter and Miriam Schneir. Unfortunately, the Times decided the article wasn’t critical enough and turned it down. The Schneirs took it to The Nation, which was happy to publish it. (Contact me for a copy.)

In the early 70s, the terms socialism and communism were interchangeable even though it led to some confusion when I was selling subscriptions to The Militant door-to-door in Columbia University dormitories. When I asked a student if they would be interested in a socialist newsweekly, they’d always ask if the socialism was like in Sweden or in Cuba.

Today, the term communism has lost its power, mainly because the Cold War is over and because what’s left of it is like a boxer on the ropes. On the other hand, socialism is more popular than ever. A Pew Research Poll a year ago found that 42 percent of Americans have a positive view. Of course, they don’t mean Cuba. They want the USA to be more like Sweden, at least what it was like around the time Nick Castle made his movie about the SWP.

A new film titled “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” will certainly be embraced by the 42 percent of Americans in the Pew poll and even win over maybe another 9 percent. However, if 51 percent of Americans ever become the kind of socialist featured in Yael Bridge’s documentary, you can be assured that capitalist property relations will continue into the indefinite future. 51 percent having a positive view of communism is a horse of another color (red).

You can get an idea from Bridge’s political orientation by keeping in mind that she produced a documentary based on Robert Reich’s “Saving Capitalism”. The Daily Californian, the student and community newspaper of U. Cal Berkeley, where Reich teaches, had little use for it: “Yet there’s no examination of the shortcomings of the capitalist system at large, no nuance given through critical analysis on issues of privilege or generational poverty. The topic is briefly discussed through personal anecdotal interviews but never unpacked.”

The title of Bridge’s film is probably inspired by John Nichols’s book “The S Word”. For Nichols, socialism does not really mean abolishing capitalist property relations. Nichols is prominent throughout the film and argues throughout that socialism is not about Russia or Cuba. It is about our native-traditions going back hundreds of years. In one of the more interesting passages in the film, we learn that there was not only a socialist commune called the Wisconsin Phalanx in Ripon, Wisconsin in the 1840s, but that its leaders went on to form the Republican Party in 1854, which was of course revolutionary back then. The film does not go into much detail about the Wisconsin Phalanx but suffice it to say that it was a utopian experiment based on Fourier’s concepts. Yes, Farmers lived communally in a Long House, but it is somewhat far-fetched to call this socialism unless you also want to describe the Israeli kibbutz in the same terms. A Guardian review of Nichols’s book was critical of its “big tent” understanding of socialism:

Nichols distorts history by dragooning reformist liberals into his socialist tradition. For example, Tom Paine is posthumously drafted as a socialist hero because he favoured a version of a welfare state and progressive taxation, even though these are compatible with an economy based primarily on private property. Nichols does not mention Paine’s belief in minimal government or his support of an armed citizenry, which are cited today by American libertarians and opponents of gun control.

The film is a virtual who’s who of the Sandernista movement today, with Eric Blanc, Vivek Chibber, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adaner Usmani, Kshama Sawant, Matt Karp, and Cornel West doing most of the heavy lifting in interviews. Not a single one ever takes up the question of making a revolution.

In one of the more revealing passages, we see Vivek Chibber providing a brief history of class society. He starts off by describing hunting-and-gathering societies that despite their primitive nature were examples of people working together to produce the goods they shared on an egalitarian basis. Next came feudalism that was made possible by the creation of a grain surplus and, thus, the creation of a ruling class made up of knights capable of defending farmers in exchange for a percentage of the food they produce. Finally, there is capitalism that is marked by the separation of the farmers from their means of production (i.e., the Brenner thesis). Once that happens, they have no other recourse except to become wage laborers. What’s missing? Can you guess? Yup. He never gets into the question of what happens after capitalism. Maybe, the director could have gotten him to answer that question. That would have led to an outright repudiation of what Karl Marx meant by socialism, even though he is widely regarded as the ultimate word on socialism. (Except maybe outside of Jacobin and the NYU Sociology Department.) Okay, maybe Marx is relevant but certainly not Lenin, as Chibber attests. In a Jacobin article from 2015, Chibber explains what it means to be an anti-capitalist today. It boils down to saying no to the entire project:

Today, the political stability of the state is a reality that the Left has to acknowledge. What is in crisis right now is the neoliberal model of capitalism, not capitalism itself.

There are only a couple of experts who stray from this neo-Bernsteinian path. One is Eric Foner, who sticks to American history—bless his heart—and stays away from the kind of banal identification between socialism and the welfare state that prevails throughout the film.

The other is Richard Wolff, who has some pithy comments on the New Deal that Bernie Sanders defines as socialism. Wolff refers to how the New Deal improved the lot of workers but that its gains began to evaporate under Reagan, Bush and even Bill Clinton. (Oh, forget that I said “even”.) He asks rhetorically in words like these, “Are we going to try to bring back the New Deal? That wasn’t permanent, was it? The answer is to change the system.” Unfortunately, Wolff does not think that revolutions are going to work, either. His answer is co-operatives. Like many on the squishy left, they have some bizarre ideas about how co-operatives can take root in the U.S. because they are so nice. Once they reach a critical mass, they can diffuse outward and turn the entire nation into an egalitarian model. You can only hold such positions by bracketing out the sordid history of Mondragon.

Apparently, Jacobin and the people behind the film are going to use it to educate people about their Swedish fantasies. The press notes state:

We have already received many requests for community screenings and partnerships with local organizations. Such screenings could be a major component of our distribution and marketing strategy. We are partnering with Jacobin magazine to create a robust curriculum around the film, including readings, timelines, and discussion questions to engage viewers watching in the classroom or in small groups. Community screenings, virtual or in- person are a great way to bring engaging speakers from the movie and local socialists and historians to underscore the relevance of this historical movement to the lives of all Americans disillusioned with politics.

I hate to break it to these people but the shelf-life on this documentary is pretty much exhausted. Just as Nick Castle’s film celebrated a sectarian vision of how a revolutionary party could transform the U.S., so does Yael Bridge’s sell an equally bogus proposition based on Kautsky and Michael Harrington. Even though the film has brief references to the pandemic and BLM, there’s not the slightest interest in addressing the current crisis that has left the Sandernista left looking clueless. The film spends an inordinate amount of time following Lee Carter around. Running as a “socialist” on the Democratic Party ballot in Virginia to win a seat in the state legislature, Carter comes across as a sincere and dedicated public servant. However, the notion that electing people like Lee Carter will eventually lead to the abolition of capitalism is utterly nonsensical even if it conforms to Vivek Chibber’s anti-revolutionary guidelines.

DIGITAL SCREENING – OFFICIAL SELECTION OF AFI FEST from Monday, October 19 through Thursday, October 22

October 10, 2020

Totally Under Control

Filed under: COVID-19,Film — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

Esquire called Alex Gibney the most important documentary film maker of our time. Although I generally shy away from bestowing these kinds of accolades, such a case can be made for him in light of the fifty films he has made since 1980. Although many are political films like “Totally Under Control” that is available as VOD on October 13, he has also profiled James Brown, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra. “Totally Under Control” gets its title from Donald Trump’s response to a reporter on Jan. 22, who asked if there are worries about a pandemic. Trump replied: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s — going to be just fine.”

On practically a day-by-day basis, Gibney and co-directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunan show how missteps, both intentional and unintentional, have cost the lives of 214,000 deaths and 7.71 million cases. There’s a tendency for COVID-19 denialists to focus on the deaths, often dismissing them as disproportionately falling on the elderly who after all are no longer producing profits for a boss. What’s the big deal, I’ve heard them argue, if the median age of deaths is 78? That’s the average life expectancy anyhow. But if you consider that among the 7.71 million cases, there might be at least one million Americans who have permanent damage neurologically or to their respiratory system, that’s a disaster. Since there are no ongoing statistical studies of the impact, it tends to be overlooked.

This is a very straightforward film. For the most part, it consists of scientists and physicians commenting on how we got there, with many familiar to you from appearances on CNN such as Kathleen Sebelius and Rick Bright. Others are not so familiar and give the documentary considerable weight, especially Dr. Taison Bell, the African-American COVID-19 ICU Director of the UVA Medical Center who talks about the uphill battle he had when the pandemic began as well as how the Black community suffered disproportionately.

However, the most eye-opening account comes from Max Kennedy Jr., the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy who volunteered with the COVID-19 Supply-Chain task force headed up by Jared Kushner. Despite his lack of epidemiological inexperience, having a background in consulting and investment, he and his team, who had the same minimal skills, had to track down desperately needed medical supplies. When he discovered how Kushner sought to keep government involvement to a minimum in favor of “market” solutions and saw Trump’s “totally under control” type remarks to the media, Kennedy broke his Nondisclosure Agreement and filed a whistleblower complaint to Congress about the Trump family’s malfeasance.

Even if the odds against an adequate response to the pandemic were heightened by Trump’s incompetence, there were also serious mistakes made by well-intentioned medical experts. Chief among them was the distribution of test kits that included probe sets for the specific detection of 2019-nCoV — so-called N1 and N2 assays — as well as one designed for the universal detection of SARS-like coronaviruses, called the N3 assay. Unfortunately, the N3 assay results contaminated the N1 and N2 assays; it took far too long for the CDC to put together a new test kit.

The documentary also hears from Dr. Kim Jin Yong, a Korean-American who headed the Incheon Medical Center. He is also an anthropologist who served as the 12th President of the World Bank from 2012 to 2019. You get an idea of America’s loss of prestige when you hear him state how dismayed he was by American incompetence. Despite serving on the World Bank and previously as the chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, he views the failure of the USA to even begin to match his own country’s response as symptomatic of its decay. When a citizen of a “peripheral” country feels sorry for the USA, something has changed. Big time. Yong was the architect of an aggressive five-point plan for ending the pandemic and reopening the economy. At the height of the pandemic, the United States reported 15 times more confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths than South Korea despite having about six times the population.

The film is extraordinary for being completed in what looks like record time to me. They built a special camera called the “COVID cam” that facilitated filming, while keeping to social distancing norms. Director Suzanne Hillinger explains in the press notes:

It’s basically a small camera that Ben [Bloodwell, the cinematographer] mounted onto a laptop tray with handles and then he put a laptop on it, rigged a microphone to it, and we’d have a local camera assistant drop it off on a subject’s front steps and we’d all be logged in on Zoom, so as soon as a subject opened the door, we could communicate with them to turn the camera on and our cinematographer would be able to control the camera from a different state. It was crazy. We figured out two options that we offered our subjects based on their comfort levels. We had a few do the remote COVID cam and we had a few who were willing to meet in person but we wanted to make sure we weren’t putting anyone at risk. So, you’ll see that there are shower curtains with a hole cut out so we could put the eye direct through it.

“Totally Under Control” is VOD on Tuesday, October 13th through Apple TV/iTunes, Amazon, Fandango NOW, Google Play/YouTube, Vudu. It will then be available through Hulu on October 20th.

October 7, 2020

Nasrin

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

Currently available as Virtual Cinema from the Boston GlobeDocs Film Festival until October 12th, “Nasrin” is a wake-up call to the left and to human rights activists that Iran is still a hell-hole seven years after Ahmadinejad’s ouster. (Just click Select a Showing and rent both “Nasrin” and another documentary for $10 ) Nasrin Sotoudeh, a female lawyer and woman’s rights activist, was sentenced to 38 years, plus 148 lashes, in March 2019. That sentence was meted out because she was a leader of the movement to end the forced wearing of the hijab as well as her willingness to defend people the clerical dictatorship deemed “against Islam”.

Among the people she defended was Shirin Ebadi, a female lawyer and woman’s rights activist as well, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. For defending Ebadi and other dissidents, Nasrin was herself charged with nebulous crimes like spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security in 2010. Found guilty, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Ebadi pays tribute to her lawyer in article aptly titled “The Riskiest Job in Iran”.

You can get a feel for what goes on in an Iranian courtroom from footage in the film, when Ebadi’s prosecutor denounces Nasrin. After she demands that his accusation that Ebadi had received $150,000 from the USA be entered in the court records, he spits out, “Why are you today, sitting again, at the American’s feet, and defending true bandits, who are homosexuals, Baha’is, prostitutes, terrorists, and street and wilderness thugs?” I doubt that anything heard during the Moscow Trials could be more outrageous.

Among the people who have relied on Nasrin’s legal advice is director Jafar Panahi, who stops by her home to discuss legal challenges to Iran’s ban on his travelling abroad. If you’ve seen Panahi’s “Taxi”, you’ll see him in the starring role of a cabdriver. The entire film consists of him picking up various fares, including Nasrin who is only identified as “The Flower Lady” since she is…carrying flowers. That’s her below.

Not only has the clerical dictatorship victimized her, her husband Reza received a six-year prison sentence in 2019. The charges? Conspiring against national security and one year for propaganda against the system. Nasrin’s martyrdom condemns this rotten system that no longer has the veneer of “anti-imperialism” except from the dregs of the left that hail its intervention in Syria. Anybody who still insists that barrel-bombing was necessary to forestall Sharia law must see “Nasrin” to get a good idea what Islamic fundamentalism looks like. To reduce it to Sunni extremism is an exercise in self-deception.

Since director Jeff Kaufman had previously made a short documentary for Time Magazine titled “40 Million: The Struggle For Women’s Rights In Iran”, he was persona non grata. After getting Nasrin and Reza’s agreement to make this documentary, he relied on a clandestine Iranian crew to produce the film. The film notes state:

Because of Jeff’s past work on Iran, we weren’t able to travel to that country. We are deeply grateful to the brave Iranian women and men who repeatedly risked arrest while filming. They take us with Nasrin and Reza to political demonstrations, into Revolutionary Court, inside Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, and in meetings with clients who face years in prison for peaceful political protests. Everyone featured in the film, including acclaimed filmmaker Jafar Panahi, participated (and signed a release) knowing that this could place them in jeopardy. It’s humbling and motivating to work with people who are willing to put themselves on the line for freedom and justice. Nasrin is a universal role model for human rights, and so is everyone in Iran who contributed to this film.

I urge you to rent this film, which entitles to you to see another for the same price. Consult the festival guide to see what’s on tap.

October 2, 2020

The Great American Lie

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

Opening today as VOD on Amazon and Apple, “The Great American Lie” is an urgent, heartfelt documentary about the increasing difficulties faced by lower-income Americans since the Reagan “revolution”. You will be reminded of the continuity with the current White House occupant when a clip of “the Gipper” features him promising to make America great again.

On the plus side, the film is replete with statistics that illustrate how we have become “two Americas”. The film’s website gives you a flavor of the kind of numbers that are presented throughout the film:

We are currently living in one of the greatest periods of social and economic inequality in our nation’s history. Today, the top 0.1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90%. In 2017 alone, 82% of new wealth created went to the top 1%.

Meanwhile, one in five American children and one in eight American women live in poverty – despite us being one of the wealthiest countries on earth. Increasing inequality has created deep social, economic, and political divides. Clearly the status quo is not working.

The film pivots between interviews with numerous academic and journalistic pundits who are appalled by the growing inequality and people who have been affected by it. We hear from Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Kristof throughout, as well as a host of psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists. They all decry America’s failure to be more like European social democracies. Although Bernie Sanders’s name is not mentioned once in the film, “The Great American Lie” makes the same kind of points he made on the campaign stump.

As for the people affected by hard times, I found Scott Seitz’s story most interesting. He was a steelworker in McDonald, Ohio, a town not far from Youngstown and named after the McDonald family that was to steel as General Motors was to auto. When the steel belt around Youngstown turned into a rust belt, working people were devastated in the same way that Flint was devastated by GM’s plant closing. Seitz was one of the victims of this collapse.

He now works seven days a week to provide for his family. His story illustrates the costs of the transformation of the American economy, including on his college-educated son. We meet him as well and learn that he is a single father, the result of his wife’s heroin addiction, something that she kept secret from him even when she was pregnant. For Seitz and other men barely scraping by in McDonald, the solution was to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Despite the evidence that it was mostly upper middle-class people voting for Trump, we cannot gainsay the defection from the Democratic Party that made the difference as well.

The film was directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of California governor Gavin Newsome who is one of the numerous compassionate liberals heard throughout the film deploring the greed of the upper classes. If you’re looking for solutions to America’s transformation into a Third World country, you won’t find it in this documentary. You get a feel for the message that is repeated throughout the film from the director’s statement in the press notes:

Inequality is not unique to America, but the American Dream is, and we’ve loaded that dream with extreme masculine messages about individualism, power, and money. Our values allow us to put a billionaire on a pedestal and blame the poverty of millions of people on their supposed lack of hard work. The Great American Lie will take a hard look at our values to begin to right this ship.

Values? I suppose that things would be a lot better if the tax structure looked a lot more like it was under Eisenhower and if the Republicans were more like Nelson Rockefeller than Calvin Coolidge but the real problem is capitalism, not bad values. Nothing will make the area around Youngstown prosperous again. Investors expect steel to generate profits, not health and happiness for the Scott Seitz’s of the world.

Despite the film’s failure to identify the underlying cause of economic suffering, I can still recommend it as a cogent, well-made treatment of the human costs. It would make for a good discussion for an off-campus high school or college class, especially for a Marxist professor trying to get students to think about the built-in liabilities of liberalism.

September 29, 2020

Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

Now available as VOD on Amazon, iTunes and Vimeo, “Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” is a film biography of one of the most renowned monumental sculptors in the world, a male-dominated field. That in itself would be extraordinary but Von Rydingsvard rise to the top against odds that would have daunted anybody, male of female, sets her apart.

She was born in Germany in 1942, when her Polish parents were swept into that country after Stalin and Hitler carved up their country. After WWII ended, they lived in displaced peoples camps until 1950. That year, the family resettled in Connecticut at a time when American policy toward refugees was relatively humane. With seven children, her father had a tough time keeping them housed and fed, usually working two jobs. His anger over the hand fate dealt him as well as a mean streak he was born with led him to verbally abuse and beat his children.

There were few signs that Ursula could have transcended such a mean environment other than her being chosen by her classmates to do all the artwork for school functions. Not long after graduated high school, she married a man whose schizophrenia was only latent at that point. After he suffered a number of psychotic episodes, she separated and took their baby daughter with her to New York, where she survived on food stamps and minimum wage jobs until she landed a job as a public school teacher.

With the money she put aside as a teacher, she bought a loft on Spring Street in Soho in 1975, when she was 33 and ready to start a career as a sculptor. Like other artists, she had become disenchanted with minimalism and was ready to take a new approach. Using 4×4 cedar beams of the sort that could be bought at any lumberyard, she began to carve them into an object looking more organic than the typical modern piece, usually attaching them into larger edifices that often looked like inverted tree trunks. Her work drew the praise of art critics and led to major commissions and teaching jobs at Columbia and Yale.

I have to admit that monumental sculpture is not my favorite genre but as a story of a woman defying all obstacles toward achieving her dream, “Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” is an inspiring documentary.

September 27, 2020

Public Trust; The Ground Between Us

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

By sheer coincidence, two documentaries have both begun showing as VOD with identical subject matters, the privatization of publicly owned land—mainly in the west. I first became interested in this topic after reading Christopher Ketcham’s article in the February 2015 Harper’s titled “The Great Republican Land Heist: Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West”. When I saw that Christopher had written a book titled “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West”, I reviewed it for CounterPunch. If Donald Trump ever stands trial for crimes against the public interest, I’d love to see Christopher as prosecuting attorney with the two documentaries serving as evidence.

Executive produced by Robert Redford, “Public Trust” can now be seen for free courtesy of Patagonia. When I sent Christopher a link to the film, he responded, “No, this is the first I’ve heard of it, and thanks for sending. BUT…it’s produced by fucking Patagucci, bro, arch-despoilers of the public lands with their promotion of endless wreckreation. Now that’s capitalist penetration!” As much as I agree with Christopher’s take on Patagonia, the film is still worth watching since it allows you to get an overview of the despoliation taking place without investing the kind of time and effort I have made. The other film is “The Ground Between Us” that is available as Virtual Cinema, a way of seeing films by buying tickets through selected theaters forced to close down because of the pandemic. This film, as the title implies, is an attempt to allow both sides of the conflict to present their own arguments. Unfortunately, the men and women taking the side of opening up to commercial exploitation are a retired lumberjack and a small rancher, not exactly the main enemy.

Both films cover two of the key battlefields involving privatization. One is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northern Alaska that is the homeland of the Gwich’in Indians, who have the same relation to the Porcupine Caribou that the Lakota and Blackfoot had to the Bison. They fear that a pipeline connecting their land to the Prudhoe Bay port 800 miles eastward will destroy the ecosystem that the Caribou have lived in for thousands of years, just like them. In both films, we hear from Bernadette Demientieff, who is Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

The other battlefield San Juan County in southeastern Utah, where the Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument are found. These are holy lands for the Indians whose artwork can be seen on walls throughout the region. Like the Gwich’in Alaska, they have lived there for thousands of years. The Navajos, Hopis, Utes  the Zunis, all have ancestral ties to the region. You get an idea of what they are up against when you hear one Republican official saying, “I’d drill for oil in a cemetery if there was oil”. This is literally what the Indians are up against.

In “The Ground Between Us”, we hear from the Redd family that has been ranching in San Juan County for generations. They resent government interference in their right to make a living but much more amiably than fellow San Juan County rancher Clive Bundy who has been leading quasi-militias in his crusade against public ownership of land in Utah and in Oregon. The Redds, looking like Marlboro men, insist that they are the best stewards of the land since they are so close to it. In his Harper’s article, Christopher debunks this notion. In a series of environmental studies, the Bureau of Land Management described “overstocked cattle, which had filled the riparian areas with dung and urine and gorged on what little grass was available…wreaking ecological havoc.”

Both films refer to Obama’s executive orders protecting Bear’s Ears and ANWR, as well as Trump’s executive order favoring the ranching, mining and oil interests. In the final moments, both urge you to register to vote with the clear implication that a vote for Biden is necessary. Biden is on record as saying that he’ll reverse the changes to Bears Ears and also ban new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters. Is this a good enough reason to vote for Biden? To start with, if the Democrats did not pick a candidate who was a liberal alternative to Trump, the two-party system would fall apart like a house of cards. Despite George Wallace, it is not true that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties, especially on environmental questions.

However, don’t expect any Democrat to hold the line under deepening capitalist crisis as “the economy” takes precedence over environmental justice. Read Steve Horn’s September 29, 2016 article and you will discover:

As eyes turned to the most viewed presidential debate in U.S. history, the Obama administration meanwhile quietly auctioned off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas drilling in national forests, opened up 119 million acres for offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, and delivered a blow to the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act rule change followed a multi-year lobbying campaign by the oil and gas industry and occurred the morning before the debate unfolded.

The leasing decisions came just weeks earlier, with the most recent one taking place as an online rather than in-person drilling lease auction, the product of industry and U.S. government backlash against efforts such as the Keep It In The Ground campaign which aim to block fossil fuel project development.

September 21, 2020

The Swerve; We are Many

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

In 1995, before my unpaid career as a film critic began, I saw Todd Hayne’s “Safe”. It told the story of a conventional middle-class housewife played by Marianne Moore, who decays both physically and psychologically from an unspecified illness related to the environment. Since “Safe” is set in Los Angeles, it rang true. Moore was unforgettable as a woman trying to hold it together. As the film progresses, the symptoms become more and more severe. Although I saw the film 25 years ago, the nightmarish scenes remain vivid.

Yesterday, I saw “The Swerve”, a film that also depicts the physical and mental breakdown of a middle-class woman. It has the same mixture of horror and personal drama as “Safe”, as well as a stunning performance by Azura Skye as a high school teacher whose life begins falling apart at the seams. In this instance, it is not the environment that is sickening her. It is her family that is the toxin.

Skye plays Holly, a woman in perhaps her early 40s who teaches high school English in some unidentified American city. Her husband Rob has a floor manager job at a supermarket who is anxious to find something better. Rounding out the family are two teen-age sons who seem normal enough even though their potty-mouth tendencies and their readiness to mouth off to her might be just corrosive enough to explain the pills she takes each morning presumably for her nerves.

Like most women, she has two jobs. In the morning and evening, she has to prepare meals. She is also responsible for keeping their respectable two-story house neat and clean. Although the film does not try to connect her plight to broader social questions, you can’t help but feel that her two jobs, one paid and the other unpaid, were enough to make her “go postal”. The conclusion of the film depicts her violent revolt against myriad assaults on her well-being without any commentary from a cop or a doctor surveying the wreckage. Unlike Moore’s character in “Safe”, who simply withdraws into herself at the film’s end, Holly goes ballistic. Literally.

One day as she is puttering about in her kitchen, she is startled to see a mouse running across the floor. This has an unsettling effect disproportionate to the actual threat of a relatively harmless creature. She almost sees it as threatening as a rat and even becomes convinced that a small bite from the creature will lead to rabies.

As for human vermin, she has plenty on her hands as well. Her husband has been cheating on her unabashedly. She catches him making out with one of the supermarket women and suspects that he is also sleeping with her sister, who is younger and more attractive than her—as well as being even more psychologically troubled. While Holly is passive aggressive, her sister Claudia is simply aggressive. At a dinner at their mom’s house, Claudia wisecracks about Holly’s weight issues in high school without a care about the pain she is causing. Meanwhile, Claudia has her own problems as an alcoholic who has undergone repeated rehabs and two failed marriages.

Nothing seems to bring joy to Holly, not even a fling she has with one of her students who works in the same supermarket as her husband. After the boy is caught drawing sketches during her class, she seizes the sketchbook and sends him to the principal. At home, she becomes mesmerized by the skillfully drawn erotic drawings, including one of her. As problems deepen at home, sex with the teen becomes a lifebelt but hardly enough to keep her afloat.

The film was the first feature ever directed by Dean Kapsalis and certainly merits my nomination for debut director if NYFCO can ever get it together during this pandemic to have our awards meeting. “The Swerve” is every bit an achievement as Todd Haynes’s “Safe” and might even get my nomination for best picture of the year as well. As for Azura Skye, she gets my nomination for best actress hands down. I am usually not into award ceremonies but I look forward to casting my vote for an outstanding indie film. Hollywood might be dead in the water but a film like “The Swerve” convinces me that VOD more than makes up for it.

In the press notes, Kapsalis names his influences. I can only say that if he continues to make films such as this, he will get the same kind of recognition as they did:

I drew on mythology and tragedies in literature to give narrative shape and tension to Holly’s psychological desolation and longing. Through her, what I felt emerge was a view of a society that is just as alienated from itself as it is from the fragile reality through which it sleepwalks. We go on about our daily lives, our routines, often unaware (or willfully ignorant?) that the people around us can break at any moment.

Similar to the female protagonists of the classic tragedies, Holly is a dutiful wife and mother, underappreciated and overlooked for her efforts. But as she goes on, and as we settle into her world, the cracks in her already damaged psyche give way.

Many artists inspired me along the way. Filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman. Photographers William Eggleston and Gregory Crewdson. Playwrights Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. Poets Dante and Shakespeare. But in a way, it was the ancient Greeks that proved to be the most inspirational.

Starting tomorrow, the film can be rented from iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube and Amazon. It is not to be missed.

Starting tonight at 8pm EST, there will be a virtual cinema premiere of “We are Many”, a documentary about the massive antiwar protest that took place on February 15, 2003. Directed by Amir Amirani, it allows leaders of the peace movement such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Leslie Cagan in the USA to describe what amounted to the largest single-day protest in history ever to take place.

For people such as myself, there’s a sense of déjà vu. At the time, I was keenly aware of the opposition to George W. Bush’s pending invasion of Iraq as well as the lies that were used to justify it. In addition to the activists, Amirani gets members of the elite to look back in anger at a war that might have cost the lives of a million Iraqis. We hear from U.N. Arms Inspector Hans Blix as well as Patrick Tyler, who covered the war for the N.Y. Times. Unlike Judith Miller, Tyler probably opposed the war at the time even though he was forced to echo the paper’s ambivalent attitude toward the build-up to the war. Surely, the publisher must have known that Judith Miller was lying like a rug.

The film will be especially interesting to people who were too young at the time or even not having been born. The film joins Robert Draper’s recently published “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq” as an autopsy on an imperialist onslaught that has had a lasting effect on American politics. You might even say that some of the votes for Donald Trump in 2016 reflected his demagogic disavowal of the war just as Hillary Clinton’s vote for the war cost her about the same number.

The film grapples with the problem of how Bush was able to continue the war despite worldwide opposition. Why did the movement collapse like a cheap suitcase after the initial days of “shock and awe”?

None of the interviewees have an answer for that except to say that we should have done more. There is an implicit case made that demonstrations alone could not have stopped the war but another explanation could have sufficed. We used to hear the same frustrations during the Vietnam antiwar movement. Why should we keep going on peace parades when Nixon ignores them?

To start with, there was no alternative to mass action. In the USA, the antiwar movement was led by United for Peace and Justice that was all too ready to switch gears in 2004 to unseat George W. Bush just as their counterparts are eager today to unseat Donald Trump. It would have taken nonstop opposition to the war to have an effect but the coalition was far too connected to the Democratic Party to sustain a non-electoral strategy.

It is also important to acknowledge the difference between the Sunni opposition to the Shia puppet government installed in Baghdad and the NLF. While many Sunnis simply wanted to drive the USA out of Iraq, a significant minority were committed to a holy war against infidels. The car bombings that killed Shias inside or nearby a mosque were enough to make many Americans consider Iraq as a place where solidarity could only go so far. By contrast, the Vietnamese were in constant contact with American peace activists in the 60s and 70s and helped stiffen our backbone.

Director Amirani tries to take the sting out of our failure to preempt Bush’s war by pointing to Obama and the British Parliament’s opposition to a Bush-style invasion of Syria. As should be obvious from the last 10 years of “anti-imperialist” opposition to a repeat of the Iraq war, there was very little interest in opposing Assad’s war on his own people and the lethal assistance he got from Putin, whose hands were still bloody from hiswar on Chechnya. You had the spectacle of the Stop the War Coalition organizing a conference with Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix as an invited speaker. Mother Agnes was an outspoken defender of Assad’s savage war on his own people and was only disinvited after Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones said they would not speak at the meeting if it meant sharing a platform with Mother Agnes.

Notwithstanding these qualms, I recommend the film since it does at least point to the kind of power in the streets we need to take on the Republicans and the Tories who are waging war on their own people right now.

September 16, 2020

For They Know Not What They Do

Filed under: Film,Gay,religion,transgender — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

After having reviewed well over a dozen narrative and documentary films over the years making the case for gay, lesbian and transgender rights, none has moved me as much as “For They Know Not What They Do” (Jesus’s words at his crucifixion) that opened yesterday on iTunes, Amazon and virtual cinema. The documentary tells the story of four young people growing up in strict Christian households, who face both opposition from their families and society as a whole. They say that the key to a successful documentary is choosing subjects that an audience can relate to. That being the criterion, director Daniel Karslake, a gay man, is a pure genius. We meet in turn:

  • Linda and Rob Robertson, fervent evangelicals who put their 12 year-old son Ryan into conversion therapy.
  • Life-long Presbyterians, David and Sally McBride, who were shocked when their youngest boy came out to them as a transgender female.
  • Coleen and Harold Porcher, a mixed-race couple whose child suffered endlessly until they accepted her transitioning to a male identity.
  • Victor Baez and Annette Febo, whose Catholic tradition and Puerto Rican family values put them at odds with their gay son Vico, who was one of the survivors of the homophobic mass murder of people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

In “Anna Karenina”, Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” His classic novel created fictional characters whose pain spoke for the human condition universally. Karslake’s film speaks to the particular pain of both parents and children coping with the contradictions between the religious beliefs that sustain them and the right of their children to live as fulfilled human beings.

In 2007, Karslake directed “For the Bible Tells Me So” that covered the same territory. It featured interviews with several sets of religious parents with gay children, including former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and his wife, Jane, and the parents of Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Robinson is featured in “For They Know Not What They Do”, making the case for tolerance. Robinson is famous for being the first openly gay priest to be consecrated as a bishop in a major Christian denomination, in his case the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Although the film says nothing about his background, one gleans that Robinson’s class background disposed him toward a genuine Christian sensibility based on the notion that the meek shall inherit the earth. His parents were poor sharecroppers working the tobacco fields in Kentucky. Wikipedia reports that the family used an outhouse, drew water from a cistern, and did laundry in a cast-iron tub over an open flame.

Although I found the story of all four families compelling, Sarah McBride’s store brought me close to tears. Born as Tim McBride in 1990, he sat at his computer when he was 12 years old sending an email to his mother announcing that he wanted to be a girl. Despite society’s animosity toward trans people that the film rightly likens to the attitudes gay people had to put up with before Stonewall, Sarah was self-assured and willing to put up with abuse. While the abuse hurt, it even hurt more to be trapped in a body that does not feel you belong in.

McBride is currently the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. Today the New York Times reported that she is set to be the nation’s highest-ranking transgender official, having won a primary for a safely Democratic seat in Delaware. As much as I detest the Democratic Party, I was happy to see footage in the film of her  being the first transgender person to speak at a major party’s national convention in 2016. Hint, it wasn’t the Republican convention.

The film includes a segment that would likely inspire guffaws from Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. While working at the Center for American Progress, McBride met a staff lawyer named Andrew Cray who she felt attracted to and vice versa. As it happens, Cray was born a female and transitioned into a male. When you watch the two walking hand in hand, you wonder what makes people like JK Rowling tick, whose new novel makes an amalgam between crossdressing and its main character, a serial killer. Not long after the two were married, Cray developed multiple forms of cancer and died in 2014. Just before his death, the two got married with the ceremony led by Bishop Gene Robinson.

There was a time when Hollywood made movies about gay people, largely as a nod in the direction of diversity. None were any good, no doubt a function of the dominance of straight people in the driver’s seat either as director, screenwriter or lead actor. It takes a documentary like this to not only do justice to gay and transgender identity but to tell a totally involving story. Not to be missed.

September 5, 2020

Watch List

Filed under: Film,Phiiippines — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Despite its innocuous sounding titled, “Watch List” is the harrowing story of a Filipino woman forced to join a police-led death squad in order to have her name taken off a list of suspected drug users targeted for assassination by the very same type of death squad.

Starring as Maria, Filipino-Italian actress Alessandra De Rossi gets my nomination for best actress of 2020. Filmed on location in one of Manila’s poorest, crime-ridden slums, director and co-screenwriter Ben Rekhi maintains the kind of realism rarely seen in films today. In addition to telling a gripping story about a woman’s struggle to protect her family, he lets a Western audience know exactly how it feels to be trapped in a web of economic circumstances that force so many Filipinos to sell drugs.

As the film begins, we meet Maria and her husband Arturo (whom she calls Turo) and their three children in their tiny apartment. Both are former drug dealers and users but have put that all behind them for the sake of their children. It doesn’t matter to the cops, who barge in one night with an order forcing them to go into a rehab program, that they are clean. If they refuse, they will be arrested for drug violations. The rehab program is something of a joke, with Maria and Turo joining other dragooned slum residents dancing to a disco tune, while cops stand guard over them. After the music ends, the top cop gives them a “just say no” pep talk practically plagiarized from Nancy Reagan.

Since they are both allowed to go home at night and since Turo will still be able to go out at night on a scooter for what appears to be his second job, they settle back into poverty-stricken but contented family life. However, catastrophe strikes when vigilantes, likely in cahoots with the cops, gun him down on the streets. Maria soon learns that he was on a watch list, as was he. People from their slum are targeted by the cops and their paid assassins to kill people on the list, whether they are innocent or guilty of using or selling drugs. Furthermore, she also learns that the only way she can get off the list is by becoming an assassin herself. As someone with a drug-using and selling past, she can be a useful informer as well as a killer. She soon learns that killing does not come easy. Torn between getting off the watch list and the guilt that comes with killing innocent people, she ends up walking a tightrope that would be too much even for Phillipe Petit.

With an all-Filipino cast, the film has an authenticity that belies the director’s career making American films. Born into an Indian family and growing up in Silicon Valley, he studied film  at New York University. After, interning for the Coen brothers production of “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, he said that he learned more about film production than as a student.

He has made a great film that can now be seen on Amazon Prime for only $3.99. It is not to be missed.

I would also recommend a documentary titled “On the President’s Orders” that deals with the mass campaign of intimidation and murder unleashed by President Duterte. If you sign up for a seven-day trial subscription to PBS documentaries on Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free. I reviewed it for CounterPunch last year In the first paragraph, you will see an actual killing that is represented dramatically in “Watch List”:

On the President’s Orders (Saturday, June 15, 8:30 pm, Film at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center)

This is set in Caloocan, a slum in Manila that is one of the main targets of President Duterte’s war on drugs. In the very beginning of the film, we see two men on a motorcycle drive next to a man standing next to his minicab. One pulls out a gun and shoots him twice, once in the jaw and again in the chest.

Later on, we discover that he is the father of a son who is one of the main subjects of the film, a Caloocan denizen who would be the next target of the police death squad that killed his father. His father, who was on a watch list for being either a seller or user of drugs, had stopped using drugs right after Duterte became president. That was not enough to keep him alive and as a breadwinner for his family.

However, most of the interviews are conducted with the cops who, like Brazil’s, operate as vigilantes. Hung on their own petard, they openly admit to there being an open season on Caloocan’s poor but describe it as necessary to put an end to drugs.

We hear Duterte at the beginning of the film during a state visit to Israel, where he is the guest of another gangster. In an address at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he says, “Critics compare me to Hitler’s cousin…Hitler massacred 3 million Jews … there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He added, pointing to himself, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have …”

 

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