Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 20, 2017

Elizabeth Blue; Thy Father’s Chair

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

The two films under review are about people living at society’s margins and not the flashy superheroes you are used to seeing in summer blockbusters about space alien invasions or super-spies but both are two of the better films I have seen in months and a testament to the integrity of their respective creative teams. In a period of commercialism running rampant, symbolized most of all by the garish and murderous clown in the White House, “Elizabeth Blue” and “Thy Father’s Chair” are reminders that humanism is still alive in a dying empire, at least in the world of cinema.

For the longest time, films about schizophrenics have tended to be horror stories like “Psycho” or Grand Guignol tales like “Shutter Island”. Given the cheap exploitation of a serious illness, we are thankful for a film like “Elizabeth Blue” that offers a fictional tale deeply engaged with the real medical challenges facing its victims. And we should be doubly thankful that first-time feature director/screenwriter has done it so well, making him the inside track for my nomination as top new director of 2017 when NYFCO has its awards meeting in December.

The hope of all schizophrenics is to live a normal and productive life, which is shared by Elizabeth who we meet as she is being discharged from a psychiatric ward. She is a young and attractive woman who had a career as an editor before the first in a series of psychotic breaks. Perhaps this time things will turn out better since she is soon to be married to a handsome young man named Grant who has accepted her illness in the spirt of the “for better or for worse” marriage vow.

To help her along, Elizabeth and Grant meet with a psychiatrist who prescribes a number of medications that will help relieve her of the symptoms that bedevil all schizophrenics. Despite Alfred Hitchcock’s lurid (if even cinematically memorable) tale, most are of no danger to other people. Instead their most frequent victims are themselves since the psychological torment often leads to suicide.

In Elizabeth’s case, you see a highly realistic portrayal of what typically happens. Auditory hallucinations take the effect of disembodied voices telling the schizophrenic that they are worthless and that they do not deserve to live. If this happens infrequently, one might assume that these attacks can be relieved through medication and the support of family or a future husband like Grant. But when it is incessant, it can reach the point where the illness can totally incapacitate the sufferer.

Elizabeth is played by Anna Shafer, who is superb. Her shifting moods and hallucinatory episodes are played most effectively without the need to exaggerate the emotional reactions to the horrors that such a patient would be enduring. In an interesting casting coup her mother, who in layperson’s terms might be seen as having driven her daughter crazy, is played by Kathleen Quinlan, who was the schizophrenic patient in the 1977 “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”.

Success stories for this illness are infrequent. Among them are Tom Harrell, the jazz trumpeter, or the late John Nash, whose battles were dramatized in “A Beautiful Mind”. They also include director/screenwriter Vincent Sabella who as a schizophrenic himself knew first-hand how to dramatize the inner life of a schizophrenic as well as the medical regimen that is necessary to stay afloat. He has not only contributed to cinematic art but to the ongoing support campaign for a much stigmatized part of society. 3.2 million people suffer from the illness in the USA and most are regarded as either a danger to society or not worth supporting through a social safety net, even with its gaping holes. “Elizabeth Blue” is a stunning drama that will help to shed light on an illness that deserves to be understood dispassionately and without prejudice.

“Elizabeth Blue” opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in NYC. Highly recommended.

Opening on October 13nd at the Cinema Village in NYC and at the Laemmle in LA a week later, “Thy Father’s Chair” joins “Menashe” as a penetrating look at the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. While not Hasidim, twin brothers Shraga and Abraham are about as close as you can come. They worship in a Hasidic synagogue and wear full beards and the black suit and white shirts that are a virtual uniform in this world.

But unlike the Hasidim, they are not only bachelors but living in a completely degraded state. They are alcoholics and living in filth in an apartment that is so insect-ridden and malodorous that the upstairs neighbors in the building they own have gone on a rent strike until the mess is cleaned up.

That indeed is how the documentary starts with the Israeli owner of a specialized cleaning company and his Black and Latino workers tackling a job that would make the ordinary person gag. There is garbage strewn across the floor in every room and a kitchen and bathroom that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a decade.

The two sixtyish brothers are a distinct NYC type that you read about every so often, the pathological hoarder who we only find out about after they die. The smell of the decomposing body prompts the neighbors to call the police and attend to the body and the filth the dead man left behind.

On October 19, 2015 I blogged about this phenomenon after reading a story in the NY Times titled “The Lonely Death of George Bell”, a morbidly fascinating article that included this:

The two men foraged through the unedited anarchy, 800 square feet, one bedroom. A stench thickened the air. Mr. Plaza dabbed his nostrils with a Vicks vapor stick. Mr. Rodriguez toughed it out. Vicks bothered his nose.

The only bed was the lumpy foldout couch in the living room. The bedroom and bathroom looked pillaged. The kitchen was splashed with trash and balled-up, decades-old lottery tickets that had failed to deliver. A soiled shopping list read: sea salt, garlic, carrots, broccoli (two packs), “TV Guide.”

The faucet didn’t work. The chipped stove had no knobs and could not have been used to cook in a long time.

Instead of decades-old lottery tickets, the twin brothers have tons of Judaica that has accumulated alongside old newspapers and magazines, as well as junk they picked up off the street. If cleanliness is next to godliness, these brothers had no hope.

To me the most interesting aspect of the film is the clash between the Israeli and the two old-school Brooklyn Jews who probably spoke Yiddish growing up. At one point, Abraham asks him whether he believes in god. The Israeli says he doesn’t. Interestingly enough, the old observant Jew says that he is not sure he does himself. As a secular-minded take charge guy, the Israeli immigrant is an obvious contrast to the kind of shtetl life that Israel was meant to replace, including the Yiddish language. Why he has moved to the USA would probably be a good subject for another film.

This is a cinéma vérité that shows the influence of Frederic Wiseman and the Maysles brothers as the co-directors openly admit. Despite the advantage that a Jewish director, such as the one that made “Menashe”, would have in securing the agreement of the twin brothers to be filmed, it is instead a Spaniard named Alex Lora and an Australian named Antonio Tibaldi who made this extraordinary film. I can’t imagine how they ever hooked up with the Israeli cleaning contractor or the two lost souls who they have rescued from obscurity. Their readiness to make a film in the midst of such squalor shows a dedication to film art that most men and women could not muster.

Highly recommended.

September 16, 2017

Red Trees

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

When I received an invitation from a publicist to review “Red Trees” that opened yesterday at Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinema in NYC, I was initially undecided since the documentary was about surviving the holocaust. Having seen dozens of films, both fiction and nonfiction, about this crime against humanity starting with Alain Resnais’s 1956 documentary “Night and Fog” that I saw as a college freshman in 1961, I was not sure what more could be said. I finally decided to review the film since it was produced by Charles S. Cohen who owns the Cohen Media Group and Quad Cinema. Over the years I have developed a deep respect for Cohen Media Group films and those shown at Quad Cinema. Suffice it to say that “Red Trees” meets the lofty standards set by Mr. Cohen, who decided to produce the film after seeing a shorter version.

Although the images summoned up the word holocaust are black-and-white photos and historical footage of skeletal victims at Auschwitz, “Red Trees” is instead a lyrically evocative picture of the world of the Czechs both past and present as director Marina Willer and her father Alfred visit the places where he grew up. Even when he recalls terrifying moments, his daughter never forgets that the overarching purpose of the film is to convey the joys of civilized life in places like Kaznêjov and Prague where the Willer family prospered economically and culturally until the Nazis began their brutal occupation in 1939.

The Willer family was a paradigm of secular and educated Czechoslovakia, in no way different from the Christian elite. Indeed, the contribution that the patriarch Wilem was making helped the family become one of the twelve that survived the genocide. He was an industrial engineer who developed the process for manufacturing citric acid, a chemical key to preserving food. Even with this to his credit, he narrowly escaped being sent to a concentration camp. The film cites Hitler’s words in 1933: “If science cannot do without Jews, then we will have to do without science for a few years.”

His son Alfred was born in 1930 and demonstrated an talent for art that was as formidable as his father’s was for science and technology. Not long after he began painting landscapes, the teachers noticed that the trees were red—a dead giveaway that he was colorblind. This did not dissuade him from a life in the arts and eventually becoming an outstanding architect. The title of the film refers both to his minor disability as well as his and his daughter’s belief that skin color should not matter when it comes to human relations. After obtaining passports in 1947, the Willers headed for Brazil, a country that symbolized the kind of racial diversity these progressive Jews believed in and that is now under mounting attack across Europe and the USA. Although the main purpose of Marina Willer’s film is to tell her family’s story, you can’t help but think that it is 2017’s most important anti-fascist statement.

I kept thinking of Stefan Zweig as the film unfolded. He lived in Vienna that like Willer’s Prague was a symbol of civilized European values. And like Willer, he chose to live in Brazil, emigrating there in 1940, not long after he had narrowly escaped Hitler’s death squads. In 1941, he wrote “Brazil: Land of the Future”, a book that saw his new adopted homeland as free of Europe’s “race fanatics”, its “frenzied scenes and mad ecstasies of hero-worship”, its “foolish nationalism and imperialism” and its “suicidal fury”. As it turned out, Zweig’s despair, and his wife’s, over the horrors overtaking Europe became too much of a burden. They committed suicide a year later, becoming Hitler’s victims just as much as those who died in concentration camps.

Marina Willer made this film as a way to get closer to her father, who had never spoken much about his ordeals as a Jew in Prague during WWII. In making the film, she was able to piece together a story that is as much a commentary on the suffering of the Jews as it is of the general problem of people being driven from their homelands because of ethnic or racial hatred or–even worse–murdered. In the press notes, she says, “Red Trees is a personal project that merges the story of my family with something that’s really universal—what’s going on today with the world’s refugees. The story becomes much more relevant because of the refugee crisis. The point of telling personal stories is that they become universal, and we can learn from history to not make this mistake again.”

Now based in London, she drew upon the cinematographic talents of her Brazilian countryman César Charlone, who won an Academy Award for “City of God”. They filmed in abandoned factories where her grandfather worked and in synagogues that contained the names of all the Jews who had died in concentration camps. Suffice it to say that Marina Willer’s background as a designer and Charlone’s stunning visual acuity make watching this film something like a visit to a museum.

In addition to telling her family’s story, we also learn about Czechoslovakia’s resistance to Nazism that includes a closing credit to some of the country’s resistance fighters. When I was very young, WWII was still very much alive in the minds of my parents and their generation, including those who scheduled what we saw on television. In the mid-50s, something like “Hogan’s Heroes” would have been totally unacceptable. Instead, we saw “The Silent Village” that can now be seen on Youtube. This British documentary made in 1943 told the story of Lidice, a Czech town that was wiped off the face of the map because it was accused of supporting the resistance fighters who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, considered the main architect of the holocaust. After he was killed, Hitler ordered the execution of every male adult in Lidice and that the women and children be sent to concentration camps. Afterwards, every building was burned to the ground and salt was spread across the soil in order to prevent anything from growing again. As Marina Willer points out, many villages and towns were renamed Lidice in solidarity with the victims as were newborn children. It may be said that if “Red Trees” had a subtitle, it would be “Lidice”.

The film ends with the words of Alfred Willer that are germane to the social crisis we face today. “I have never understood an attachment to one nation, one culture. We are a mixture, and in this there is beauty. I’m Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Czech, German, Brazilian, English– I’m everything. What a salad.” What did Stalin call such people? Rootless cosmopolitans? People such as Stefan Zweig and Alfred Willer were naturally drawn to places like Vienna, Prague and Rio de Janeiro where their catholic and progressive sensibility could flourish. Ultimately, this is the task we face today and one that “Red Trees” undertakes, to make a world where cosmopolitanism reigns supreme.

 

September 8, 2017

Trophy; Company Town

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Long before the threat of large scale animal extinction became front page news, a film titled “The Roots of Heaven” appeared in theaters back in 1959. This was a John Huston film based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conduct nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa. It was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

Three years later, a book titled “Silent Spring” began to be serialized in the New Yorker that linked the looming extinction of large-scale predators like the condor to the use of DDT in killing the pests that fed on crops in places like California. When the eagles or condors fed on the toxin-laden insects, their eggshells became too thin to bear offspring, The underlying message of Rachel Carsons’s book was that capitalist development threatened not only animal life but that of humanity itself.

Opening at the Quad Cinema in New York today, “Trophy” poses the provocative question of whether big-game hunting in Africa is the best way to save elephants, rhinos, buffalo and other endangered species. Focusing on South Africa and Zimbabwe, the film interviews white ranchers who have discovered that there is big money to be made by allowing hunting safaris to pay up to $250,000 for killing an elephant on their land. So much money can be made that these former masters of the native peoples began raising endangered species rather than cattle. Like many whites who were part of the colonial elite, they have a fondness for the Africa of yore when elephants and rhinoceros roamed freely in great numbers like bison in the northern Plains.

The directors of “Trophy” were wise enough to avoid editorializing. They pose questions that you most wrestle with. What are you to make of John Hume at his rhino ranch about a 100 miles east of Johannesburg where he keeps 1,500 rhinos protected from poachers, part of which involves armed guards patrolling his vast holdings? Hume also dehorns the beasts to make them less valuable for the sordid trade that capitalizes on the irrational beliefs of the Chinese and Saudi rich that the horns are an aphrodisiac. Hume is licensed to sell 264 horns per year to anyone in South Africa, the revenues of which helps him pay $170,000 per year on security.

We also see a Texas sheepherder named Philip Glass who is life-long hunter and devout Christian (clearly not the Jewish composer who wrote “Tefilim”) who has paid big bucks to go on his yearly hunting safari on private lands where large animals are sheltered from poaching. We see him tracking down a massive and elderly lion that he has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of killing. He sees himself in the same way that Theodore Roosevelt or Ernest Hemingway saw themselves when the white race ruled the world, enjoying the privilege of killing massive amounts of wildlife. Standing over the lifeless lion, he begins to shed tears and talk about why creationism must be true. God’s obvious plan was to have man enjoying dominion over the animals. Just as the case with John Hume, the money that Glass paid goes to protect other lions and other endangered species lucky enough to be spared the bullets from his high-powered rifle.

The most interesting interviewee in the film is Craig Packer, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota and director of the university’s Lion Center. Packer places the dwindling numbers of large-scale predators in the same context as Rachel Parsons—victims of capitalist development. In a New Yorker profile on Packer that was triggered by the killing of a protected lion by an American dentist, he defends the need for trophy hunting as a necessary evil:

It is his position, as the story begins, that the lions of the Serengeti need sport hunters to survive; that Cecils must die if prides are to endure. The lions’ existential threat is not American machismo but the slow spread of traditional cattle ranchers, some of whom have been forcibly removed from their lands in order to make room for game parks, and who will poison or spear cattle-killing lions with or without government sanction. The semi-nomadic Maasai kill lions that kill their livestock, kill lions that kill their children, and kill lions to prove themselves brave. That more than a quarter of Tanzania has been given over to hunters means that it has not been given over to people trying to make a living—so there is still hope for the lions within. “Take away the incentive for hunters to grow a healthy crop of lions, and the king of beasts would be eliminated from most of its remaining range,” Packer argues, recalling the early days of his monomaniacal quest to save Tanzania’s remaining animals. “Lions needed trophy hunting as much as trophy hunting needed lions.”

Over on CounterPunch, there is another perspective. Past and present members of Survival International who oppose traditional conservationist groups, especially for the premium they put on police action against poachers, have written articles against both trophy hunters and attempts to sustain nature preserves. As long-time defenders of indigenous rights, they obviously hope to keep pastoral peoples like the Masai masters in a state of nature even if that impinges on that of nature itself. For Stephen Corry, indigenous peoples are elevated over trophy hunters because they are tied to the land in a way that no safari ever could be:

Other big game hunters really should be grappling with a monumental theological crisis around subsistence hunting. On the one hand, they’ve always opposed it because it reduces “their” game, but on the other hand, tribal hunters surely deserve recognition as the original authorities, the respected “elders,” as it were. After all, tribesmen are infinitely more expert than anyone else at tracking and stalking, they have a much deeper understanding of their prey, and are far more respectful towards the animals – aspects which are also engrained in the beliefs of the big game hunters. Tribesmen are also of course highly skilled at making their own weaponry and, most importantly, their communities are better conservationists than anyone else.

This strikes me as a romanticized version of tribal life that has little resemblance to African realities. Lions, elephants, rhinoceroses et al are dwindling in numbers in part because their habitat is being encroached upon by subsistence farmers whose cattle are being eaten by lions or whose crops are being trampled by elephants. They have no interest in an ecological balance with such beasts who are regarded as a nuisance in the same way that a cattle rancher in Montana regards wolves as the enemy. Also, by chopping down trees and clearing bush, they are destroying the habitat of large animals in the same way that replacing the prairie with wheat killed the bison just as efficiently as rifles.

For a solution to these contradictions on top of contradictions, it will have to begin with a vastly ambitious reorganization of our relationship to nature, starting with a more equal distribution of people and resources between town and countryside. Subsistence farming is on the increase in Africa because there are so few jobs in the city. If labor could be better integrated into the production of use values in cities with a much lighter footprint than today’s Johannesburg, tribal peoples would not feel the need to kill elephants or to destroy the plant life they subsist on.

“Trophy” does not and really cannot address the future world that is so necessary but it is a powerful examination of the current hell we are living in.

“Company Town” made me so enraged at the Koch brothers that I went to the Lincoln Center website to track down the names of people on the board of directors to send a mass email denouncing them for taking money from the men who were responsible for a cancer epidemic in Crossett, Arkansas. After cooling off, I decided that my time would be better spent advising my readers to see a powerful documentary that takes up one of the most outrageous cases of environmental racism that can be imagined.

In 2005 the Koch brothers bought Georgia-Pacific that produces a wide range of commodities based on timber. This includes paper goods like Brawny, Dixie, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern and Vanity Fair that you should not buy under any conditions. It also produces a wide range of chemicals. The biggest G-P plant was in Crossett, Arkansas and employed a largely African-American workforce from the town and the surrounding Ashley county that began to suffer from a cancer epidemic clearly related to the plant dumping toxic byproducts into the soil and earth around the plant—illegally.

The star of the film is a retired African-American G-P worker named David Bouie who is also a pastor in a Crossett church. When people living on the streets in his neighborhood began dying one by one, he began looking into the possibility that toxic dumping might have been responsible, especially since nearby streams that were formerly clear and pure now were filled with gunk whose odor could make you gag.

He teamed up with a local woman who was a river-keeper for local streams in the same that Pete Seeger was for the Hudson, as well as environmental scientists to prove that G-P was acting on Koch brothers behalf to boost profits at the expense of the well-being of people living in Crossett. Most importantly, a whistle-blower from G-P came forward to tell Bouie and his fellow activists that company policy was to dump chemical byproducts into the streams and fields near Crossett under the cover of night.

Eventually they teamed up with EPA officials, who happened to be African-American just like most of the people working at G-P. Let’s put it this way. If they weren’t getting paid off by the Koch’s, they were doing the best they could to make such an impression.

In one scene that makes you want to scream, the local activists and G-P management were supposed to have a phone conference but at the last minute G-P bailed. When Bouie expressed his dismay at their refusal to discuss how toxic dumping could end, the EPA chief tells them that it might be a good idea to be less aggressive. After all, he advises, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Granted that the Koch brothers are like houseflies, this was obviously a way of telling them to accept the status quo, including more cancer cases.

The Crossett case has been widely covered in the press. I strongly advise you to see the film at Cinema Village but if that is not possible because of prior engagements between today and the 14th, I urge you to read Jane Mayer’s article that appeared in the New Yorker a year ago. (). Titled “A Whistle-Blower Accuses the Kochs of “Poisoning” an Arkansas Town”, it is likely one that Lincoln Center’s board members chose to ignore. Mayer is the author of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”, an investigative report on the Koch brothers and their cohorts. She writes:

In June, Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the billionaires Charles and David Koch, launched a new corporate public-relations campaign called “End the Divide,” to advance the notion that Koch Industries is deeply concerned by growing inequality in America. An ad for the campaign urges viewers to “look around,” as an image of an imposing white mansion is replaced by one of blighted urban streets. “America is divided,” an announcer intones, with “government and corporations picking winners and losers, rigging the system against people, creating a two-tiered society with policies that fail our most vulnerable.”

The message was surprising, coming from a company owned by two of the richest men in the world, who have spent millions of dollars pushing political candidates and programs that favor unfettered markets and oppose government intervention on behalf of the poor. But no trouble appeared to have been spared in the commercial’s creation. It features a cast of downtrodden Americans of all colors and creeds. To portray corporate greed, it includes a shot of a Wall Street sign, followed by a smug businessman looking down at the camera, dressed in a flashy suit and tie. But, according to Dickie Guice, who worked as a safety coördinator at a large Koch-owned paper plant in Arkansas, the company need not have gone to such lengths. Instead of scouting America for examples of social neglect, the Kochs could have turned the cameras on their own factory.

This summer, Guice decided to speak out about the paper mill in Crossett, a working-class town of some fifty-two hundred residents ten miles north of the Louisiana border.* The mill is run by the paper giant Georgia-Pacific, which has been owned by Koch Industries since 2005. According to E.P.A. records, it emits more than 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals each year, including numerous known carcinogens. Georgia-Pacific says that it has permits to operate the mill as it does, and disputes that it is harming local health and safety. But as far back as the nineteen-nineties, people living near the plant have described noxious odors and corrosive effluents that have forced them to stay indoors, as well as what seems to them unusually high rates of illness and death. Speaking by phone from his home, in Sterlington, Louisiana, Guice pointed the finger directly at the mill’s owners, and described a corporate coverup of air and water pollution that he says is “poisoning” the predominantly African-American community.

Guice made his début as a whistle-blower in a new documentary film, “Company Town,” about the pollution of Crossett, which premièred in June at the L.A. Film Festival. Natalie Kottke-Masocco, the film’s director, and Erica Sardarian, its co-director, spent some five years in Crossett, and over time they coaxed Guice to go on camera. “I was warned that I’d never get hired again,” he told me, when I asked why he was coming forward. “But I thought, What the heck, what are they going to do, kill me? It had to be done.”

As Guice tells it, he started working at the Crossett plant in February, 2011, when Larco Inc., a local heavy-equipment and construction firm, where he worked, was contracted by Georgia-Pacific to handle disposal of the paper plant’s waste. According to Guice, the contract called for his company to spread two hundred thousand cubic yards of “ash” dredged from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill’s sediment ponds across four hundred acres of property that it owned in the town. He says that Georgia-Pacific supervisors told him to spread the waste in layers in pits that were sometimes forty feet deep, and then to cover it with six inches of dirt, “so that it looked like a regular piece of land.” The land often flooded, Guice told me, and runoff would flow into trenches that fed into a local creek, which ran behind a residential area. He said that Georgia-Pacific would also dump “big plastic tanks” of untreated liquid waste. “It looks like brown liquor,” he said. “And steam comes up from it, sometimes all day.” Within a few months of starting at the paper plant, Guice said that he fell ill from exposure to the waste, developing respiratory problems. “My doctor told me to get out of there,” he said. “But I needed that job.”

August 24, 2017

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis

Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

Opening tomorrow at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and to be followed with a DVD/VOD release this November, “The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis” is an Argentine film that might have easily been titled “Dark Night of the Soul”. Its eponymous main character is a middle-aged man living a life of quiet desperation. A glorified Bob Cratchit, he toils away as a bookkeeper in a small company whose hope for being promoted was dashed in the beginning of the film. Meeting with the boss, he learns that his payment for being a valued employee is a box of groceries, not the coveted promotion.

Just before returning home, he receives a phone call from a woman he hasn’t spoken to in decades. She wants to meet with him to get his authorization for a poem he wrote long ago when they were classmates in college. That is the pretext for the meeting they have in her car. She has learned from her husband, an air force officer working in counter-intelligence, that two people will be picked up that later that night to meet the fate that twenty thousand Argentinians have already met in 1977: Desaparecido.

She writes down the names and the address of the man and the woman on a piece of paper and instructs him to commit it to memory. After testing to see that he has done so, she crumbles the paper into a tiny wad and swallows it.

Finally grasping the gravity of the task put before him, Sanctis demurs. He cannot be of help. He honestly wonders why he would be asked to risk his life for two people he does not even know. The connections between the two, the woman who has summoned him out of the blue, and Sanctis are tenuous at best. Yes, he did write a poem glorifying the life of urban guerrillas but that was long ago when he was an impetuous youth. Now he is a settled and undistinguished middle-class man facing the usual challenges of any breadwinner. Why would he risk his life for two total strangers, when he no longer has the revolutionary beliefs of his college days—no matter how shallow?

These were the stakes doing politics in Argentina. Three years before the challenge faced by Francisco Sanctis over this long night, I was living in Houston and reporting for the SWP majority in a faction fight about guerrilla warfare in Argentina. The SWP supported a group led by Nahuel Moreno that had a similar orientation to our own, namely one of mass action based on student and working class youth. The other faction was led internationally by Ernest Mandel and supported a group in Argentina that was kidnapping bank executives and hijacking trucks.

Argentina, unlike the USA, had a radicalized working class that was a big threat to the country’s bourgeoisie and Washington. When a leader of the group we supported was on a speaking tour in the USA, he stayed at my apartment. Each night as we headed off for an event, we checked my car for bombs. This was in 1975.

A year later there was a coup in Argentina that smashed the guerrilla groups and drove the orthodox left underground. Henry Kissinger learned about General Videla’s seizure of power two months before it occurred. He gave the gorilla his advice: “The quicker you succeed the better … The human rights problem is a growing one … We want a stable situation. We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help.”

“The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis” describes the tension that existed throughout society even when those like the film’s main character were doing their best to keep a low profile. As the film proceeds, we see him wrestling with the decision about what to do against a backdrop of darkly lit streets, neon lights and barking dogs.

Humberto Constantini

The film is based on a novel of the same title by Humberto Constantini who knew this terrain quite well. Born to Italian-Jewish parents in 1924, he joined the CP in his twenties and fought against the Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista, a violent anti-Semitic fascist group. In the sixties, he became disillusioned with Stalinism and began to gravitate toward the Cuban leadership, particularly Che Guevara, a fellow Argentinian. He was active in the revolutionary movements of the 1970s and somehow managed being “disappeared” like fellow writers Harold Conti and Roberto Santoro.

After watching the film, I was motivated to take his novel out of the Columbia library. As good as the film was, nothing can compare to this unheralded revolutionary writer:

Now, as by degrees he begins connecting with reality, he has the feeling of having been thrust into a time outside time, into an interlude of daydreams and preposterousness, with addresses learned by heart, bits of paper burned to ash, vague husbands serving in Air Force Intelligence, bureaucratically planned kidnappings for three or maybe four in the morning, and mysterious informers who practice yoga and body expression. An interlude during which not he but another Francisco Sanctis, much more adrift, naive, and susceptible to bamboozling than the present Sanctis or the one who at five that afternoon received a telephone call at Luchini & Monsreal, would have committed an endless series of blunders, acting exactly the way one acts in dreams, accepting without question and as perfectly normal the most unparalleled facts and details—a toothbrush that’s also an aunt; a fish that slips off a hook, makes its way across a room, and utters threats in the voice of Father Cioppi; a four-eyed roly-poly girl who’s also an absolutely stunning dish; an optician’s receipt that must pass through ritual fire; a pair who will be brought in by a goon squad this very night. The matter deserves at least a half-dozen deep breaths and several minutes of calm meditation.

Films can do many things but they will never achieve the power of written language.

 

August 21, 2017

Mama Africa

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

If “Mama Africa”, the fine new documentary about Mariam Makeba, was nothing more than a compilation of her performances going back to the songs she sang in Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” in 1959, it would be well worth seeing. But it is more than that. It is a portrait of a leading Pan-African activist who deserves to be ranked alongside Paul Robeson as a tireless fighter for human rights for all people.

In a way, Rogosin’s film launched her career as a freedom fighter since everybody involved with it understood the risks they were taking. She only appeared briefly on stage, and sang two songs lasting four minutes but made such an impression on those who saw “Come Back, Africa” that she was invited to perform in London and New York, where she met and impressed Harry Belafonte who had by now established himself as an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow. He helped her get her first recordings made, “The Click Song” that was based on the highly percussive Xhosa language and “Pata Pata”, a dance tune she considered superficial.

One of the things that struck me about early her professional history is how much it overlapped with the folk music revival that to a large extent relied on great musicians like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte who had been part of the Communist Party’s cultural milieu. Songs like “Wimowe” (The Lion Sleeps at Night) were often performed side-by-side with “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome”. By 1959, the battle against Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa were closely linked in the minds of young people like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mariam Makeba was not in South Africa when the Sharpesville Massacre occurred a year later. She was anxious to attend the funerals of two family members were victims of the racist cops but discovered that her passport had been revoked. Like Paul Robeson, she had become an unperson. Because of the massacre and the violation of her right to travel freely, Makeba became even more outspoken and dedicated to eliminating apartheid.

Indeed, the film is social history as well as a personal history of Marian Makeba. As the Civil Rights movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, Makeba’s path crossed that of Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC who had coined the term Black Power and become a leading Black nationalist and afterwards a Pan-Africanist who adopted the name Kwame Ture. After Carmichael and Makeba married in 1968, her songs took on a sharper political edge and were performed at rallies in the USA and Africa.

The film benefits from interviews with some of the key people who knew her as fellow musicians or activists. We hear from her bass player and drummer from the early 60s who offer thoughtful assessments of her as a person and a musician. She was beloved by everybody, especially for her readiness to prepare an elaborate meal on a moment’s notice. We also hear from her grandson Nelson Lumuba Lee who fleshes her out as a personality. He states that the accidental death of another grandson at a young age from accidentally swallowing some pills left her disconsolate and probably made performing and activism more difficult, especially as she grew older.

Makeba was able to return to a free South Africa in 1990 and became an enormous influence on younger female vocalists who pay tribute to her in the film. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the impact she had on African music and politics. It must be said, however, that Hugh Masekela, her most famous collaborator has a dim view of South Africa today, describing it as a neo-colonial state dominated from the West and the East.

“Mama Africa” was directed by Mika Kaurismäki, the older brother of Aki Kaurismäki—my favorite director. Mika directed a wonderful film titled “The Girl King” that I also recommend highly. It is the story of the lesbian Queen of Sweden who was tutored by Descartes—no that is not fiction! It can be seen for a mere $1.99 on Youtube.

Unfortunately, a disabled Macbook prevented me from posting this review until today but I urge my readers to try to attend a screening as indicated below:

Parkway Theater, Baltimore – 8/18 to 8/24

Austin Film Society – 9/23 & 9/30

Virginia Film Festival – 11/10 & 11/12

IFC, New York City –1/19/18 to 1/25/18

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto – 2/27/18

I would also advise checking the distributor’s website to check about other screenings.

August 18, 2017

California Typewriter; The Shopkeeper

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:22 pm

Two documentaries have come my way that raise important questions about the digital revolution as well as providing much more entertainment than Dunkirk and Detroit put together, even if this might be a case of setting the bar too low.

“California Typewriter” is a beautiful homage to the antiquated machine that people my age used long before personal computers took over while “The Shopkeeper” is a nostalgic look at the recording industry in its prime and how streaming services like Spotify and Pandora threaten to pauperize performing artists to the point of making them as antiquated as a typewriter. The shopkeeper in question is Mark Hallman, the founder of the Congress House, the longest continually operating recording studio in Austin, Texas.

However, both films hold out the possibility of keeping such “relics” alive since as Camus once said, “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”

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August 13, 2017

The Nile Hilton Incident; Whose Streets

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

Regrettably I was not able to write a review two outstanding films that opened in New York on Friday night. If you are looking for worthwhile alternatives to “Dunkirk” or “Detroit”, you cannot do better than to make time for “Nile Hilton Incident”, a narrative film that is playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Quad Cinema, or “Whose Streets”, a documentary showing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe theater at Lincoln Center and at Sunshine Cinema. It is quite likely that these will be finalists in my pick for best films of 2017.

As a big fan of film noir, I would have highly recommended “The Nile Hilton Incident” as the sort of work that captures the best of a genre that is woefully underrepresented in popular culture today. Directed by Tarik Saleh, a Swedish filmmaker of Egyptian descent, its closest relatives are the Swedish detective stories written by Marxists such as the Wallander series. In such tales, the enemy is often some powerful capitalist who can rely on his cronies in the police department or the military to look the other way when they are carrying out some crime. It is up to a decent, hard-working detective to set things right. (This is fiction, after all.)

In the opening scene of “The Nile Hilton Incident”, a Sudanese cleaning lady at this Cairo landmark is pushing her cart down the hallway when she hears a woman screaming from inside a room just before the killer makes his escape. She recognizes him from the far end of the hallway as a past visitor to her room and someone to be feared. As such, she beats a hasty retreat in the opposite direction from him.

The following day, the cops survey the crime scene led by chief Noredin Mostafa whose first impression would lead you to believe that he had little in common with the high-minded, incorruptible Wallander. Inspecting her dead body, he finds a billfold filled with money that he pockets. This sort of behavior is par for the course in his department that is led by his uncle Kammal who openly discusses payoffs at headquarters.

Noredin Mostafa is a chain-smoking, sad-eyed man in his forties who lives alone. A widower, he is seeking companionship but like people everywhere in the world is forced to rely on computer dating because social ties have broken down, especially in metropoles like New York or Cairo. When putting together his profile for a dating service with a tech-savvy friend, he seems ready to walk away in disgust.

He is played by Fares Fares, a Swedish actor originally from Lebanon who is outstanding. He moved to Sweden to escape the civil war and soon became a successful actor in Swedish and American films, including Kathryn Bigelow’s awful “Zero Dark Thirty”. Unlike her film, “The Nile Hilton Incident” is very much from an Arab viewpoint and immersed in Egyptian culture. With his basset hound features, Fares will remind you instantly of Victor Mature or Robert Mitchum, two film noir icons who often played the same kind of role: a tarnished, world-weary detective walking a tightrope between the needs of honest citizens who have been wronged and the powerful elements of Egyptian society who use the state to protect their interests—including the cops.

In the course of his investigation, Noredin discovers that the culprit is likely a parliamentarian and real estate developer who is used to getting away with all sorts of crimes, and in this case possibly murder. Just as he begins to uncover clues that make the developer a prime suspect, his uncle tells him that the case is closed. The dead woman slit her own throat in an act of suicide.

At this point, Noredin decides to jump off the tightrope and into the ranks of the downtrodden. The dead woman was kept by the real estate developer and likely killed by him in a crime of passion. As his investigation proceeds, the protests in Tahrir Square are beginning to mount and at this point Tarik Saleh’s film becomes a perfect blend of film noir and social criticism of the fetid core of Egypt’s ruling class.

Highly, highly recommended.

“Whose Streets” is in part a look at the protests that followed in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri but much more than that. It is a sensitive and revealing look at the activists who helped to build the movement and the kind of lives they live. Under economic pressure that would break most people, they have an indomitable thirst for dignity and respect that was so sorely missing in this town ruled by a racist police department.

The film profiles seven subjects and devotes most of its attention to Hands Up United’s cofounder Tory Russell, Brittany Farrell, who is a nurse and young mother, and David Whitt, a recruiter for Cop Watch. These are young, articulate and idealistic people who are part of an emerging civil rights movement that may be more powerful than that of the 1960s for the simple reason that it starts on a higher level. The goal is no longer desegregation but social and economic equality, starting with the expectation that cops don’t have the right to shoot you in cold blood because you are walking down the middle of the street like Michael Brown.

Director Sabaah Folayan was well-equipped to make such a film. She is an African-American who grew up as the daughter of a single mom in South Central Los Angeles, a part of the city that has to deal with the same issues as Ferguson. She attended Columbia University as a premed student and graduated with a degree in biology. But she was drawn to community organizing soon after her graduation but with much more of an emphasis on struggle than another Columbia University graduate who worked as a community organizer, one Barack Obama.

Folayan teamed up with Damon Davis, whose father was a member of the Black Panther Party and mother was a sharecropper. A native of St. Louis, he was able to become part of the struggle from the outset. Wikipedia reports:

In Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, while awaiting the grand jury decision on whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, Davis created a public art project on storefronts boarded up in anticipation of unrest. Working with store owners, he wheatpasted the plywood-covered windows of participating stores with a series of posters developed from his photographs of hands in the “hands up” gesture Brown was allegedly making when Wilson shot him. Davis described the project at aiming to create “something visually appealing, just to give the people hope, and let them know we stand with them.” Mic called the project “the most powerful street art in America.”

In 2016, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego showed the photographs from the project in an exhibit called “Damon Davis: All Hands on Deck.” An original window board from the Ferguson installation is part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

As I have stated in the past, I consider documentary filmmakers of the past to be part of an informal vanguard that will ultimately become the party that leads a revolution in the USA. You should consider Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis the vanguard of the vanguard.

August 11, 2017

A Taxi Driver

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

Opening on August 11th at the AMC Empire 25 in NY and the same day nationally, “A Taxi Driver” is a South Korean film based on an important event in the country’s history. In 1980, during a rebellion in Gwangju against a recent military coup, a German reporter named Jürgen Hinzpeter came to South Korea to cover the rebellion but had no way to reach the city except by cab since all public transportation had been shut down by the military. Even a cab would have trouble getting through since all the major roads had been blockaded. It was up to a cab driver named Kim Sa-bok to drive the reporter into Gwangju, taking dirt roads to bypass the military guards. As a result of Hinzpeter’s film footage of the occupying military’s massacre of up to 600 people, the South Korean government was perceived worldwide as a bloody dictatorship.

This is not the first South Korean film to dramatize the Gwangju uprising. In 1999 I reviewed “Peppermint Candy”, a film I included in my list of the greatest 100 ever made. Yongho, The anti-hero of “Peppermint Candy”, is a businessman who has had a long history of malevolent behavior, including serving as part of the assault on Gwangju. From my review:

Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in 1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them “bitches,” as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho’s peppermints pour out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is not allowed.

The soldiers are dispatched to Gwangju, where students and workers have been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation, just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.

 

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August 8, 2017

A weekend in Hudson

Filed under: bard college,Catskills,Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

Louis Proyect and Lucas Jedrzejak

My primary purpose in going to Hudson, NY was to attend a screening of Lucas Jedrzejak’s documentary “Ketermaya” on Sunday, August 6th,  a film I first saw at the 2017 Socially Relevant Film Festival in March of this year. The screening was organized by Danette Gorman who was also at the SR 2017 festival and was inspired by the film to show solidarity with Syrian refugees determined to forge ahead despite dire circumstances. They are a microcosm of the freedom struggle that continues after six years of the regime’s genocidal attack on civilians.

Unlike other films about Syrian refugees that tend to be stories about their desperate flights across Europe or the Mediterranean and subsequent estrangement from an aloof if not hostile Swedish or German society, “Ketermaya” is a different kind of film. It is a testimony to the unquenchable spirit of the Syrian people and particularly the children of this refugee camp who will be the future leaders of a free Syria someday if there is any justice in this world and if there are enough people like Lucas and Danette to help make the critical difference.

Another motivation was to return to a town I had visited with some frequency when I was at Bard College in the early 60s. About a twenty minute drive from Bard, Hudson was in decline just like other towns and villages along the Hudson River. What all of them had going for them was a stunning view of the river and the Catskill Mountains behind it that I enjoyed from my dorm window at Ward Manor, a mansion the school purchased in my junior year. One night I came back around 8pm to see Bob Dylan in a salon on the ground floor playing an electric guitar with some of Bard’s folk musicians. I listened to them play for a bit and walked back to my room wondering why Dylan had gone electric.

Ward Manor

In a stroke of luck, Danette found lodging for me and my wife in the house of her friend Agi in the hills above Hudson. The view, as indicated above, was spectacular. Our host was nicknamed Agi since it easier to pronounce than her Hungarian birth name.

Her story was remarkable.

During WWII, when she was only three years old, she was among the Jews living under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg. As a Swedish diplomat assigned to Budapest, he was able to issued protective passports and to keep Jews like Agi and her parents alive in buildings designated as under Swedish protection. As an ally of Nazi Germany, Hungary obviously sought ways to help carry out the Final Solution. One day a gang of machine-gun touting Hungarian militia members swarmed into her building and ordered her and everyone else to line up on the street. With death staring them in the face, Wallenberg’s limousine showed up at the last minute. Using his authority as an official representative of Sweden, he ordered the fascists to disperse.

Why would Soviet Russia have had Raul Wallenberg arrested in January 1945, the month of my birth, and sent to the Lubyanka prison camp near Moscow where he died two years later? Since the USSR had no use for “bourgeois democracy”, there are no records of the charge against him, which were probably as bogus as all the others that took place under Stalin. What we do have is a record of Soviet leader Nikolai Bulganin’s order for his arrest:

On Saturday during lunch at Agi’s home, Lucas referred briefly to his own exposure to Stalinist criminality. In high school, he had a teacher who was notoriously strict and demanding—the sort of man who would throw a heavy keychain at the blackboard to get the attention of an unruly class. One day, he closed the door to the classroom and told the students that he was going to tell them the truth about the massacre in Katyn. 23,000 Polish officers were executed in 1940 for no other reasons than that they were officers. This occurred when the USSR was in control of the eastern half of Poland as part of the secret protocols of the Malenkov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact. It was the determination of men and women like this high school teacher, as well as Lucas’s parents, to be free that put them on a collision course with the Kremlin, which finally culminated in the emergence of Solidarity in 1980.

Like Lucas, Agi knew what it meant to be part of a powerful anti-bureaucratic movement. Like many Hungarian youth, she started off seeing some benefits in Communism, especially its ambitious athletics program modeled on the USSR’s but when she joined a massive protest march in 1956, she felt the same way that Poles would feel in 1980 and Syrians would feel in 2011—free at last, to repeat Martin Luther King Jr’s immortal words.

As I have said hundreds of times before, the Western left has a deficit problem. Seeing Washington as a kind of absolutely evil presence in the world, it tends to demonize any movement receiving its aid. This leads it to excuse oppressive behavior by the Kremlin on a consistent basis, just like the Communist Parties did in the 30s and 40s. When there was a USSR, one might explain this as motivated by good intentions even if it objectively helped Stalin have Wallender arrested or invade Hungary and Poland. But with Putin supposedly being one of the wealthiest men in the world today according to some experts and Assad’s crony capitalist cousin controlling 60 percent of the Syrian economy, there can be no excuse.

With 150 people showing up for the screening of “Ketermaya”, it was obvious that human rights trumped geopolitical foolishness. Like anybody else who has seen the film, they understood that Syrians deserve our support and solidarity.

There are good reasons why Hudson would serve as a “sister city” to Ketermaya, to recall the term activists used in the 1980s when places like Park Slope in Brooklyn would link up with a Nicaraguan city that had been a victim of Reagan’s contra war. What better way to oppose American foreign policy than to act as a citizen of the world sending medicine or computers to people under siege? Agi described Hudson as a city with many liberal-minded New Yorkers who moved there because they could no longer afford the rents in Park Slope. Among them were a sizable contingent of gays and lesbians who flocked to the there in the mid-80s when it was rapidly becoming a center for antique dealers, a business long favored by gay men and women. Wikipedia refers to this development:

In the last few years, perhaps encouraged by the number of gay business owners among the original antiques dealers, Hudson has become a destination for gay people who have opened new businesses, moved here from larger urban areas, and who have been in the forefront of the restoration of many of the city’s historic houses. In 2010, Hudson High School made history when openly gay seniors, Charlie Ferrusi and Timmy Howard, were named prom king and queen. During the same year, Hudson hosted its first gay pride parade, which was attended by several hundred people.

Since January, Americans have been agonizing over the direction of the country with a racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobe in the White House. While a lot of the discussion veers toward electoral strategy, there was something about the positive example of Hudson that deserves consideration by the left.

Aided by the Presbyterian Church in Hudson, which is as progressive as any Unitarian church I have ever seen, Danette Gorman has taken the initiative to create an alternative America that embodies the true spirit of this country. Only arriving in Hudson around the same time she saw “Ketermaya”, she raised money to fund a needs assessment trip to Lebanon. Her next step is to organize a meeting at the church to get people involved. So instead of bemoaning the evils of a know-nothing president, she and her fellow Hudsonites are acting to create a different reality, one in which solidarity across borders in the interests of peace and fair play reigns supreme.

If you want to support Danette Gorman’s project to help the children of Ketermaya, please go to https://www.helpsyriaskids.org/ and help spread the word.

Finally, as someone who recognizes the power of “Ketermaya” to cut through the stereotypes of Syrians as fanatics and potential terrorists, I am hoping to recruit college students in NY to help organize a screening when the fall semester starts. Ideally, it would include Skype connections to Lucas for a Q&A and with the children of Ketermaya who love connecting with people in the West to tell their story. Contact me at lnp3@panix.com if you find this trailer inspiring, as surely you will.

August 4, 2017

Icarus

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Opening at the IFC Center in NYC as well as on Netflix VOD, “Icarus” is an oddly compelling tale about the Russian use of performance enhancement drugs (PEDs) in international sporting events that like the hacking reports was used to make the Kremlin look bad. Just as the accusation about Russia interfering in our elections is the height of hypocrisy (the USA is the world’s champion at this), so is the furor over doping. American athletes do the same thing both in amateur and professional sports. The explanation for interfering in elections and gaining unfair advantage in athletic competition is fairly simple. Powerful capitalist nations like the USA and Russia see both as spectacles used to con a depoliticized population. What better way to get peoples’ minds off their economic woes than to get them sitting in front of a TV set watching presidential candidates “debating” or jumping off a diving board?

“Icarus” was directed by Bryan Fogel, a man in his early 40s or so who has only one credit to his name before this film—“Jewtopia”, a 2012 romantic comedy about a Christian who pretends to be Jewish to woo the woman of his dreams.

As the film begins, Fogel is seen competing in an amateur but grueling bicycle road race. He has been at it since an early age but never finishes better than 14 or so, as he did in this race. Since the news of Lance Armstrong’s use of PED’s was so widespread, Fogel began to put two and two together. Maybe he can’t win a race because he is not doping like everybody else?

This leads him to try an experiment. Instead of eating nothing but McDonalds for a month like Morgan Spurlock did in “Super Size Me”, Fogel would used PEDs before entering his next race. In other words, the documentary would be about using his body for a mixture of laughs and social criticism.

To start his experiment, he needed a connection as we used to put it in the sixties. That connection turned out to be Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of the Russian laboratory assigned to test athletes for PED’s. Since he knew what to look for, he would be an ideal guide as to which drugs to use and how to avoid detection.

Once he and Rodchenko start working together, the film has the sort of entertainment value as “Super Size Me”. We see Fogel giving himself injections in his buttocks and following a pill-swallowing regimen that is about as punishing as eating Big Macs and—according to some—just as injurious to your health.

Abruptly, the film takes a sharp turn when investigators start to look into Russian PED use after German television did a Sixty Minute type investigation in December 2014. That led to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) putting the spotlight on Russia and particularly on Rodchenko’s lab.

Worried that he might become a scapegoat for the Kremlin that obviously ordered him to overlook the evidence of doping, Rodchenko fled to the USA and became a key figure in the scandal. So midway in the film, he became the star and Fogel became the extra.

That likely made it a much more interesting film since Rodchenko is a larger than life character. He is a voluble, self-dramatizing and mostly likeable figure who might have been played by someone like Robin Williams if this was a narrative film.

Much of the film depicts the labyrinthine measures that Rodchenko took to switch urine samples at the Sochi Olympics. They make anything done in the Oceans 11 movies look like child’s play.

My recommendation is to see the film at the IFC or on Netflix but also to see it alongside “Bigger, Stronger, Faster”, a film I reviewed in 2008 and that can be seen on Amazon VOD for $5.99. Unlike most of the sports commentariat, it takes the bold position that steroids are harmless and that taking them does not really make competition less tawdry than it already is. From my review:

A documentary that has the audacity to make the case for steroids in a period when its use or advocacy can only be compared to membership in the Communist Party in the 1950s. Directed by Chris Bell, a long-time user of and believer in steroids, the film owes much to the Michael Moore genre, with the short, heavily-muscled but paunchy Chris Bell taking the audience along with him on a whimsical tour of the world of steroids-one that starts with his own conventional Catholic family in upstate New York in the early 1980s. Along with his two brothers Mark and Mike, they became big fans of professional wrestling and used to spend hour after hour in their parent’s basement imitating the way that 3 to 400 pound athlete/actors body-slamming each other. Next they discovered body-building and were particularly inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger who made a speech during the height of the steroid witch-hunt defending the need for drug-free sports. It was later revealed by men who trained with him that he was on the juice the entire time he was coming up the ranks.

Unlike baseball players, the world of professional body-building and wrestling-the sports (loosely speaking) that the Bell brothers participated in-has not been subject to the same kind of close scrutiny and prosecution. The three brothers not only refused to stop using steroids, they even became advocates on its behalf. With his wry sense of humor and his sense of the hypocrisy of American double-standards with respect to chemical aids in all walks of life, Chris Bell is a very effective spokesman for a distinctly distaff viewpoint. Put succinctly, the movie demonstrates very effectively that steroids are harmless (the claims of ‘droid rage’ and steroid-induced cancer are unfounded) and that chemical aids are used in all sorts of activity, including playing the violin!

In an interview on a website that sells steroids and other chemical aids (where else), Chris Bell is asked what inspired him to make this movie. He answered:

I always had the idea to do a film on steroids. But I was searching for the core thought of the movie. What is this movie really about? Well, it’s about steroids. But you can’t just say ‘it’s about steroids,’ you have to come up with some clever hook to make the film work. So I’m thinking what is it really about? Then I saw Senator Joseph Biden speaking about steroids. He was pounding his fist on the table at a Congressional hearing saying that there’s something simply un-American about steroids! And I thought about it. I’m thinking about my brothers. I’m thinking that I used steroids; I’ve tried them before. Are we un-American? Are my brothers and I un-American? Or is there nothing more American than doing whatever it takes to be number one in our country? And that’s the core thought of the film.

Considering Biden’s place in the body politic today, I am not only inclined to applaud Chris Bell’s but ready to order some steroids myself. I could certainly use some bulking up.

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