Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 8, 2019

First Iranian Film Festival at the IFC Center in NYC

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 8, 2019

Ever since 2014, I have made the case for Iranian films on CounterPunch (see links to the articles below).

At the risk of sounding like one of those reviewers addicted to superlatives for Hollywood films that appear in full-page ads in the NY Times, let me say that the five films I have seen in advance of the Iranian Film Festival that opens next week at the IFC Center in New York on January 10th beat the pants off of Roma, Widows, The Favourite, The Green Book or any other films that have the inside track for Academy Awards.

They incorporate the elements that have draw attention to Iranian films worldwide for the past forty years, including a swan song for Abbas Kiarostami, a director/screenwriter that Martin Scorsese describes as having “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” It is a supreme irony that a state with a well-deserved reputation for censorship is capable of serving as an incubator for great art but then again the greatest music ever written catered to the tastes of both church and nobility.

Let’s be grateful that the batch of five films discussed below, which push the envelope of Iranian cultural norms, can still be made. To some extent this reflects a cultural thaw under Hassan Rouhani who is determined to open up the country’s economy to foreign investors, even if Donald Trump is just as determined to keep the doors closed. I was ecstatic to see that one of the five films was directed by Jafar Panahi who I consider one of the world’s greatest directors. Though under house arrest between 2010 until 2015, he was still defiant enough to make a film in 2011 on an iPhone inside his home titled “This is Not a Film” that was up to his usual high standards. He still cannot leave Iran, even if in film circles he is considered to be on a par with Kiarostami.

At the risk of indulging in hyperbole, I advise seeing as many of these films as possible at the IFC. They will remind you of not only how films can reach the level of fine art but provide insights into a country that is as important geopolitically as any on earth.

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January 3, 2019

Communion

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Among the Hollywood “quality” films sent to me in November for consideration in our NYFCO awards meeting was “Crazy Rich Asians” that I could not endure for more than 15 minutes. If I had watched the whole thing, I probably would have written a review something like this:

If you go to a bachelorette party on an island and the other guests put a huge bloody fish head on your pillow, you are in a horror movie, not a rom-com. Maybe at this point in the history of capitalism there’s not much difference. Crazy Rich Asians looks more like a glossy tourist magazine produced for an international economics summit than a movie.

That’s from A.S. Hamrah, the film reviewer at N+1, a really great Marxist journal of politics and the arts. The graphics aren’t snazzy like Jacobin’s but it is ten times smarter. Hamrah should get a medal just for sitting through this garbage.

Starting not long after the NYFCO awards meeting, I got back to the kind of films I really enjoy. I doubt that I will see any this year that is more of a polar opposite to “Crazy Rich Asians” than “Communion”, a Polish cinéma vérité documentary about a family that is not only at the bottom of the economic ladder but burdened by serious problems that would challenge even a billionaire’s. Opening tomorrow at the IFC in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles, the lead subject is a 14-year old girl named Ola who is effectively the family head. With a 13-year old autistic brother Nikodem being prepped for his communion and an unemployed alcoholic father to look after, her perseverance and grace under fire is something to behold.

Nikodem’s autism is probably at the higher end of the spectrum since he is engaged with his sister and father but mostly on his own terms. They don’t treat him as ill but simply as someone prone to misbehavior. Happiest when he is taking a bath, he is chided by Ola for using up too much bubble bath. You first get the impression that he is not “normal” by the sight of his hands fluttering nonstop in the air, as if he were a flamenco dancer on methamphetamine. He also has a remarkable vocabulary for any 13-year old, let alone one with autism. When the words come tumbling out, they have a vaguely oracular quality. Early on, Ola is looking through his communion preparation notebook and chastising him for the inappropriate entries, one per page and accompanied by illustrations: “No Mongols allowed”, “Life is a Rat”, “He was born to be a Rat”, “When Jesus was born, the dinosaurs…”, “Most of the dinosaurs…”, “The End of Jesus”. As she tears each page out of the notebook, he squeals in complaint. You really have to wonder how he will make it through communion with notes like this. On top of that, when he is in a training session with a priest over how to understand sin, Nikodem disagrees with the notion that gluttony is a sin. How can eating as much as you want be a sin?

In addition to its intimate portraiture of an unlikely family, “Communion” is a sharp-eyed examination of the empty rituals of the Catholic Church in Poland. Ola keeps pressuring Nikodem to memorize his responses to the questions put to him in the communion ritual without worrying too much whether he understands them or not. I went through a similar exercise when I was his age, learning Hebrew to recite my bar mitzvah haftarah but had no clue what the words meant.

Rounding out the cast is Marek, a chain-smoking, beer-swigging wastrel whose wife has left him for obvious reasons (she makes a brief and touching appearance on the weekend of Nikodem’s communion.) Ironically, it was a chance encounter with him that led to the making of this remarkable film as director Anna Zamecka mentions in her Filmmaker interview:

I was working on a project about the European football championship of 2012; Poland was hosting the games that year. I was shooting at the central train station in Warsaw. There were a lot of foreign tourists coming to the city, and I was filming them attempting to communicate with a ticket cashier who only spoke Polish. She was having a lot of trouble understanding a customer and, as there was a very long line, people were starting to become impatient. This man approached the tourist and started asking him questions in German, then in English, then Spanish, Italian, Serbian, and other languages, wanting to know how he could help him. The guy was French so the two started having a long conversation in French, and Marek eventually helped him to buy his ticket. Unbeknownst to them, I was filming the whole time. I went home and watched the footage and was completely captivated by Marek.

A couple of days later, I was filming in the station again, and I could hear his voice through my headphones. I tracked him down and shyly approached him to introduce myself and confess that I had filmed him the other day. I wanted to know how he knew so many languages. He told me that he was a self-taught linguist. In the ‘80s, he had been selling money to foreign tourists. In order to cheat them, he taught himself to communicate in as many languages as possible. [laughter]

With newspaper coverage about Poland today focused almost exclusively on the Trump-like authoritarianism of the President and the apparent (at least for the time being) willingness of the population to accept it, Anna Zamecka’s film is a reminder of the generous and intelligent spirit of its artists. As a student from the country’s prestigious Wajda school, she pays homage to the great man who it was named after.

December 30, 2018

Genesis 2.0

Filed under: extinction,Film,indigenous,Russia,science — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

If you knew nothing beforehand about “Genesis 2.0” and sat down after the opening credits had rolled, you’d swear after about 15 minutes that you were watching Warner Herzog’s latest documentary since it incorporates his obsession with obsessional people. In this instance, it is the Yakut hunters who have set out on a hunting trip for dead animals, specifically the tusks of woolly mammoths that have been extinct for around 10,000 years. It would not be far-fetched to call them scavengers rather than hunters.

The Yakuts live in the very north of Siberia. If the word Siberia summons up visions of frigid, desolate and barren tundra, nothing prepares you for the hunting ground they have chosen, the New Siberian Islands to the north of Siberia that would be of little interest to any Russian if it were not the high price paid for the tusks of creatures dead 10,000 years ago and up. Of course, that price is relative since like most indigenous people drawn into the commodity production, they are likely to be the lowest paid.

We learn that woolly mammoth tusks are in high demand because there is now a ban on exporting elephant tusks to China where they are used in carvings purchased by a nouveau riche population that seem little interest in whether a knick-knack on their fireplace mantle might eventually lead to the extinction of the African elephant, the genetic relative of the woolly mammoth as well as the mastodon. In the commodity chain, a Yakut hunter might get a hundred dollars for a tusk that is in relatively good condition. It is then sold in the marketplace in China for up to tens of thousands of dollars to a merchant who then hires artisans to turn it into something looking like this:

This goes for $130,000 at http://mammothtusk.org/

“Genesis 2.0” is narrated by Christian Frei, the Swiss director whose native language is German. If it wasn’t for the offbeat subject, the narrator’s quizzical tone and German accent would convince you that you were listening to Werner Herzog. That being said, Frei is dealing with far more deeply philosophical questions than any I have ever seen in a Herzog film. Since I consider Herzog to be one of the top ten living filmmakers, that’s quite a compliment to Frei whose ambition is to engage with the deepest concerns of the 21st century: what is humanity’s future and what is the future of life in general? Although we do not hear the term “sixth extinction” once in the film, you can’t help but think of it.

Among the men profiled by Frei is Peter Grigoriev, a Yakut who dropped out of college to become a mammoth tusk hunter. His brother Semyon also plays a major role in the documentary even though he is not a hunter. He is a paleontologist and head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic in northern Siberia. His dream is to resurrect a woolly mammoth, a task his brother and his fellow hunters make plausible after they stumble across the nearly complete carcass of a baby woolly mammoth that has been so well-preserved under the frozen tundra that its blood pours liquid from its veins.

Like Indiana Jones coming across the lost ark of the covenant, Semyon feels like his lifelong dream has been realized. With samples in hand, he flies to South Korea to connect with Woo Suk Hwang who runs Sooam Biotech, the largest cloning laboratory in the world and most successful. While Woo is mainly interested in pure science, he pays his bills by cloning the pet dogs of wealthy people who are willing to pay the same money to be reconnected with Fido as those willing to shell out for a mammoth tusk carving. We hear from one customer, a woman with a distinctly nasal Queens accent who says she loved her dog more than anybody, including her husband and her mother. In moments like this, you can also be fooled into thinking you are watching a Werner Herzog since the unintended comedy is funnier than any Will Ferrell movie I’ve ever seen.

This is not Semyon’s last stop. Next, he flies to China to meet with the top management of BGI, a genome sequencing laboratory that has Communist Party members and military officers on its board. They are anxious to register the dead baby woolly mammoth’s genome codes with BGI that is aspiring to encompass every single living thing on earth in its electronic archives. Like Woo, BGI pays for their pure science undertakings by the more menial job of testing fetal samples sent to their labs by parents anxious to preempt having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. When Semyon’s colleague questions the morality of such a business, the BGI executive stares blankly at him with a plastic smile on her face.

Let me conclude with something from the press notes that helps pull together the different strands of this remarkable film that opens on January second at the IFC in New York:

There is a kind of gold rush fever in the air, because the prices for this white gold have never been so high. But the thawing permafrost unveils more than just precious ivory. Sometimes the hunters find an almost completely preserved mammoth carcass with fur, liquid blood and muscle tissue on which arctic foxes gnaw.

Such finds are magnets for high-tech Russian and South Korean clone researchers in search of mammoth cells with the greatest possible degree of intact DNA. Their mission could be part of a science-fiction plot. They want to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life à la “Jurassic Park”, and resurrect it as a species. And that’s just the beginning. Worldwide, biologists are working on re-inventing life. They want to learn the language of nature and create life following the Lego principle. ( The Lego Principle refers to the concept of connecting first to God and then to one another. Regardless of the shape, size, or color of any LEGO brick, each is designed to do just one thing: connect. LEGO pieces are designed to connect at the top with studs and the bottom with tubes. Following this metaphor, if you can connect to the top with God and to the foundation with others, you then have the ability to shape the world you live in.) The goal of synthetic biology is to produce complete artificial biological systems. Man becomes the Creator.

The resurrection of the mammoth is a first track and manifestation of this next great technological revolution. An exercise. A multi-million dollar game. The new technology may well turn the world as we know it completely on its head…and all of this has its origin in the unstoppably thawing permafrost at the extreme edge of Siberia.

Genesis two point zero.

 

December 14, 2018

That Way Madness Lies

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

The first word that came to mind after watching “That Way Madness Lies”, Sandra Luckow’s documentary about her older brother’s Duanne’s wildly destructive tendencies brought on by paranoid schizophrenia, was courageous. As a film professor at Yale, Columbia and Barnard with a long career in filmmaking, Luckow could have made any number of films that would have been less painful and confessional. However, she surely must have understood that this was not just a bit of family history that would draw an audience in the same way a roadside accident draws the stares from bypassing cars. Its broader interest is in showing the terrible lack of institutional support for families that have to cope with a walking time-bomb like Duanne Luckow. While it is beyond the scope of this article, I can say that I have seen such problems up-close and can empathize deeply with what Sandra Luckow had to endure.

As American as apple pie, the Luckows hailed from Portland, Oregon where her father operated an antique car repair shop. Mechanically gifted, he built a tiny helicopter that he flew for pleasure. Showing the same aptitude as his father, Duanne soon became his partner. In addition to his talent for repairing cars, Duanne also became an avid home movie buff, varying between the typical vacation fare and ambitious works depicting himself as a James Bond type super-spy. He also was an accomplished still photographer who managed to entice young women into cheesecake type shoots that oddly enough substituted for any real intimacy. Looking back at this and other eccentricities, Sandra wonders whether the family might have sought professional help early on. Obviously, those eccentricities were normal enough in a country that is a breeding ground for maladjustment.

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December 12, 2018

The Quake

Filed under: disaster,Film — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Among the most popular genres marketed to the youth-oriented Cineplex world is the disaster film. The natural disasters range from tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, meteor strikes to luxury liners capsizing from either a rogue wave or an iceberg. The plot is dictated by the necessity of survival and generally involves a strong male lead trying to unite with a daughter or wife who he has become separated from after the disaster strikes. Such films naturally require a major investment in special effects or computer graphics since that’s the only way to depict New York City being destroyed by a flood of biblical proportions or a fireball produced by a humongous rock from outer space striking the planet.

Hollywood generally dumbs down such films since they are intended to scare you like a roller coaster ride rather than make you think. When Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox produced “The Day After Tomorrow”, they wanted you to sit at the edge of your chair hoping that the paleoclimatologist dad (Dennis Quaid) would somehow make it across thousands of miles of ice produced by climate change to reach and rescue his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) holed up in the public library on 42nd street. Do you think that the film had much to say about how the new ice age happened? Don’t be silly.

Three years ago, I saw “The Wave”, a Norwegian film about how rockslides created devastating tsunamis twice in the twentieth century in the village of Tajford. The first tsunami occurred in 1905, killing 60 people. Thirty-one years later, another 74 lost their lives from the same natural disaster. Considering the fact that Norway’s population was only 2.5 million in 1905, the first tsunami would have killed the equivalent of about 7,000 people in the USA today.

Roar Uthaug, the director of “The Wave” (Bølgen), who admits to being a fan of Hollywood films like “Twister” and “Armageddon”, decided to make his own such film but on a micro-budget probably proportionate to the percentage difference in population between Norway and the USA. Unlike “Twister” or “Armageddon”, “The Wave” played in an arthouse in New York. Even if a teen audience would have loved a dubbed version of “The Wave”, subtitles are a show-stopper for most Americans, including those with Ph.D.’s. Speaking for myself, dubbing is more painful than a toothache.

Although I loved “The Wave”, I didn’t bother reviewing it—mostly because it was a bit far afield from my usual beat. If I had written a review, it might have read something like what Anthony Lane wrote for the New Yorker but in plainer language:

You would hope that a Norwegian disaster film would take place on a fjord, and so it does. The director’s name is Roar Uthaug, and that, too, fulfills all expectations. Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is a geologist, on his final shift at the fjord; he and his wife (Ane Dahl Torp) and their children are packing up and preparing to move to the city. A nearby mountain chooses this day—of all days!—to crack and slide into the water. This causes a tsunami, which surges toward the town where the family lives; other souls are in equal danger, but they matter less. In short, far from wriggling free of the standard tropes of Hollywood catastrophe, Uthaug embraces them eagerly, right down to the hero’s kids—a teen-age boy, stirred to moody heroics, and a Teddy-bear-clutching young girl. As for fleeing the flood, they naturally have ten minutes to reach high ground. (Kristian, ever thorough, sets his watch.) Yet the movie works; the setting feels grandly unfamiliar, and the aftermath of the wave, with its elemental mix of water and fire, seems like a plausible vision of Hell. In Norwegian.

This time around, I will not neglect reviewing the sequel to “The Wave”, this time directed by John Andreas Andersen but featuring the geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) and his family once again. As should be obvious from the title, “The Quake” (Skjelvet), is about an earthquake pulverizing Oslo. There was an earthquake in 1904 that damaged some buildings but resulted in no fatalities (as far as I can determine.) Some geologists warn that conditions exist for producing a “severe” earthquake but it is safe to say that the one depicted through CGI in “The Quake” is far more devastating than any than that the worst earthquake has ever produced. It is a movie after all.

In the sequel, the family has disintegrated. Kristian has remained in Geiranger, the town that suffered the tsunami, while his wife and two children have relocated to Oslo. He appears to be a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, holed up in his house pasting articles about the disaster in an upstairs room. When his young daughter Julia comes for a visit, she asks him what he is up to in this room and he lacks the presence of mind to give her a proper answer. The next day, he cuts her visit short and puts her back on the boat to Oslo.

A few days later, he receives a packet of articles from a fellow geologist indicating that a major earthquake is in the works. Just after putting the package in the mail, the colleague dies in a cave-in in a tunnel underneath a fjord leading into Oslo. Kristian then contacts the man’s daughter who gives him free rein to examine the geologist’s office where he finds convincing evidence that a “big one” is about to hit Oslo.

A desperate Kristian meets with the chief geologist for the government who warns Kristian about going overboard. Meeting indifference everywhere he goes, including from his own family, he begins to resemble Jack Lemmon’s character in “China Syndrome”.

When the earthquake hits, he finds himself in the same 34-story office building as his wife and daughter Julia, where he embarks on a rescue mission that is as hair-raising as I have seen in a movie since that scene in “Wages of Fear” when Yves Montand attempts to maneuver a truck filled with nitroglycerine off a rickety wooden platform on a mountain ledge.

“The Quake” opens on Friday at selected theaters but, fortunately, on VOD as well. Information on its availability is at the film’s website. As for “The Wave”, it is available on Amazon Prime and other VOD platforms as well.

 

 

December 7, 2018

Boy Erased; The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 7, 2018

This year two narrative films shared the same subject matter: the damage that conversion therapy does to gay people following a regimen based on Christian fundamentalism and bogus psychotherapy in order to “change”. “The Boy Erased” had a bigger budget and a more conventional Hollywood distribution path than the indie “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” that played in arthouses but both are excellent. The first is currently playing in theaters everywhere, advertised heavily, and considered as possible Oscar-bait while the second that opened over the summer can now be seen as VOD. I made a point of seeing both films after watching a segment on Sunday Morning CBS News a couple of months ago about conversion therapy, a practice that struck me as utterly barbaric. After saying something about the two films, I will conclude with some observations about how the “sky religions” have managed to maintain utterly inhuman practices based on a couple of sentences in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, notwithstanding shifting attitudes toward same-sexers over the eons.

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December 6, 2018

Black America seen through the prism of seven films released this year

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 2:16 am

Likely a combination of pressure applied on the Hollywood film industry to be more racially inclusive and the street protests led by Black Lives Matter, 2018 was marked by a bumper crop of films about Black America. Perhaps the most significant evidence of a shift was the long and flattering article in the May 22, 2018 Sunday NY Times Magazine section titled “How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood” that was unlike any article I had seen in the magazine in a long time, maybe ever:

“Sorry to Bother You” comes out in wide release in July. The film is visually ingenious and funny, yet grounded by pointed arguments about the obstacles to black success in America, the power of strikes and the soul-draining predations of capitalism. A self-described communist since his teens, Riley has said he aims “to help build a mass movement that can use withholding of labor as a strategy for social change.”

Another such film that opened to universal acclaim was Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”, which some critics viewed as his best work ever. I avoided seeing the two films when they first came out partly as a reaction to the hype surrounding them. In general, I stay away from Hollywood films for most of the year since they hardly seem worth the money I would spend to see them. As I expected, I received screeners for both films and can say at this point that my skepticism was warranted. This has also been the case with just about every other film I have seen in this capacity except for the surprisingly great “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

As it happens, the best in this group of seven under consideration was a low-budget neorealist indie film titled “Life and Nothing More” directed by a Spaniard who used nonprofessionals exclusively. Except for this film, the others were flawed in one way or another. Despite that, I have no problem recommending them all since they at least engage with the realities of racism that have deepened horrifically under the white supremacist administration of Donald Trump.

Sorry to Bother You

The main character in this surrealist satire is a young African-American man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who has just started a job as a telemarketer in Oakland. When he fails to sell much of anything, an older co-worker played by Danny Glover advises him to use a “white voice”. This leads to success, so much so that he gets promoted to a highly paid “power caller” position on a higher floor. When his co-workers on the ground floor form a union to strike for higher wages, Green crosses their picket line.

The combination of losing friendships made on the ground floor, estrangement from his girlfriend–a radical artist, and the dark secrets he discovers on the top floor is enough to make him quit his power caller job and join the resistance.

Both the ground-floor and top-floor operations are owned by a man named Steve Lift who might be described as a combination of Jeff Bezos and some villain out of a Marvel comic book—not that there’s much difference. Lift has begun building a slave labor work force based on Centaur-like creatures called “equisapiens” that are produced by a gene-modifying, cocaine-like drug that Green himself is persuaded to take in Lift’s office.

As a genre, surrealist satire generally leaves me cold. Although I have seen no references to this, it strikes me that the work of directors and screenwriters such as Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Terry Gilliam helped shape “Sorry to Bother You”. Such works strive for shock value rather than dramatic intensity based on realism. In Riley’s film, there is almost no attempt to develop one of the equisapiens into a sympathetic and identifiable character such as the slaves in Pontecorvo’s “Burn” but there is no doubt that the sight of a man’s body with a horse’s head must have been enough to impress most film critics.

BlacKkKlansman

This film was “inspired” by the real life experience of a Black cop in Colorado Springs named Ron Stallworth who teamed up with a white cop in the 1970s to infiltrate the KKK. Since he was working undercover at the time to gain information on “extremist” groups like the local Black Student Union that had invited Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael), he decided to branch out and investigate the Klan. So the film sets up an equivalence between Kwame Ture and David Duke, a cast character playing a major supporting role in the film. Doesn’t this remind you a bit of how Trump and his “there were bad people on both sides in Charlottesville”?

Ironically, despite Boots Riley’s devastating critique of Lee’s film, they both rely on the same device—a Black man using a “white voice” to deceive someone on the other side of the line. In Stallworth’s case, it was to communicate with the KKK about future meetings, etc. Once a hook-up was arranged, a white (and Jewish) cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) would show up representing himself as Stallworth.

Stallworth’s initiative in penetrating the KKK elevated him in the eyes of the local police force who at first regarded him either paternalistically or in an openly racist manner. In the film’s conclusion, he uses a wire to record a racist cop who is dragged off to the delight of Stallworth and his white cop supporters. It is not exactly clear why he is being arrested since racism is completely legal, especially in Colorado.

Essentially, Lee’s film is a throwback to Stanley Kramer’s liberal, integrationist films of the 1960s like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Racism is depicted as a function of prejudice rather than institutions functioning to create a reserve army of labor. Lee is a skilled filmmaker but not much different than Michael Moore politically. In 2008, he hailed Obama’s victory as a sign that Washington would soon become a “Chocolate City”. Four years later when it was obvious that it remained vanilla under Obama, he expressed disappointment but still raised a million dollars in a fundraising party at his home for his re-election.

In his takedown of Lee’s film, Riley was a lot sharper than any dialog he wrote in “Sorry to Bother You”:

Look—we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines—we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Green Book

Like “BlacKkKlansman”, “Green Book” is based on the experiences of real-life characters but probably taking fewer liberties. In 1962, Jamaican-born pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) needed a driver for a tour that began in the north and that ended in the Deep South. He hired a bouncer from the Copacabana named “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who was out of work for two months while the Copa did some remodeling.

The film is reminiscent of old-fashioned TV comedy, especially “The Odd Couple” that paired a slovenly sportswriter and a prissy photographer in the same Manhattan apartment after both men had divorced their wives. Felix, the photographer, is always lecturing Oscar about his untidy habits while Oscar is working to wean Felix from his neurotic obsessions over this and that. In “Green Room”, the fastidious and well-educated Black artist is always remonstrating Tony Lip for his lapses. He wants to improve his diction—a Bronx Italian accent done well by Mortensen—as if he were Henry Higgins working on Liza Dolittle. Irritated at first, Tony Lip begins to warm up to his boss after seeing him wow audiences and having the courage to tour the Deep South. In a number of scenes, he confronts racists who have disrespected the world-class pianist even though the film starts with Tony Lip throwing out a couple of glasses that Black repairmen have drunk from while working to fix his refrigerator. If he can overcome his prejudice, why can’t the rest of Italians in the Bronx “get along” with Negros.

The film was directed by Peter Farrelly, a white filmmaker who has teamed up with his brother Bobby for comedies like “There’s Something About Mary”. This is essentially a road movie with a message of racial tolerance as likeable and old-fashioned as bowl of steel-cut oatmeal on a winter morning. It is the kind of film that a white audience in Birmingham, Alabama, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, can watch with pleasure even if on the next day they treat Black people with contempt. That’s what films like this are about, anyhow. An escape from a mean and violent world.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, this is a film directed by Barry Jenkins, the African-American who made the excellent “Moonlight” in 2016. Set in the early 1970s, it is love story about a 22-year old aspiring sculptor named Fonny and his 19-year old lover named Tish who grew up in Harlem, the children of working-class parents.

Like many kids in Harlem, especially those who took advantage of an inexpensive CUNY education, the two were anxious to live as Manhattanites and put the provincialism of Harlem behind them, especially that of their parents. Tish’s mother is a devout Baptist who practically disowns the two when the unmarried Tish becomes pregnant.

Fonny has a day job that allows him to enjoy a reasonably decent life (this was long before Manhattan turned into Rio de Janeiro) while Tish works behind the counter selling cologne at a place that looks like Bloomingdales. Their prospects brighten when an orthodox Jew named David decides to rent an empty loft to Fonny on Bank Street in the West Village that he can use for both shelter and artwork. Keep in mind that in the early 70s, this is how Soho and Tribeca got started. When Fonny is shocked to discover that a Jew was about to rent something far below market prices (was this an inadvertent stereotype?) to a Black man, he can’t help but ask why he was being treated so well. The reply: I was touched by the love you two shared.

Despite being poised on the brink of a new and free life, Fonny can’t escape the consequences of being Black, even in progressive New York. When a white cop, who has a grudge against Fonny for an earlier confrontation, arrests him on the flimsy charge of raping a woman on the Lower East Side, their dreams are dashed. He goes off to prison despite the best efforts of his mother to track down the woman in Puerto Rico in order to convince her testimony in court.

What makes the film notable is not so much the struggle for racial justice but the romance of the two young people that director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins conveys well, no doubt a function of his deep devotion to James Baldwin and this novel in particular. In an Esquire Magazine article, Jenkins expresses the challenges of making a film that combines the hopefulness of young love and the crushing social forces arrayed against it:

And yet so rarely has a protest novel contained within it as soaring a love as that between Tish and Fonny. To put it simply, the romance at the center of this novel is pure to the point of saccharine. It’s no wonder that, amongst the more scholarly of his readers, the book is held in lesser esteem. And yet even this is a testament to the magic trick Baldwin pulls here, and a key reason for the tone of our adaptation. We don’t expect to treat the lives and souls of black folks in the aesthetic of the ecstatic. It’s assumed that the struggle to live, to simply breathe and exist, weighs so heavily on black folks that our very beings need be shrouded in the pathos of pain and suffering.

The Hate U Give

Directed by the African-American George Tillman Jr., this is a Black Lives Matter-themed film based on a young adult novel written by another African-American, Angie Thomas (the screenplay was an adaptation written by a white woman named Audrey Wells, who died shortly before the film’s release.)

The main character is Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who lives in a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken neighborhood reminiscent of Ferguson, Missouri called Garden Heights but who goes to a predominantly white and wealthy school “on the other side of the tracks”. Her identity is split between the two places. She has a white boyfriend and hangs out with white girls, making little attempt to fill them in on how she lives in Garden Heights.

One night she goes to a party where she runs into an old friend from the neighborhood named Khalil who offers her a ride home. On the way there, they are stopped by a cop in a typical racial profiling manner who orders Khalil out of the car and to put his hands on the roof. With Starr sitting in the front seat and the cop examining Khalil’s license and registration, he turns around, sticks his head through the window to see how she is holding up. After she says okay, he grabs a hair brush from the front seat and begins resuming the stance the cop ordered him to take. When the cop spots the brush in darkness of the night, he mistakes it for a pistol and in “self-defense” fires three bullets into the youth who dies on the spot.

As the sole eyewitness to the killing, Starr has to choose between two identities. If she comes out as the only person who has a chance of bringing the cop to justice, she risks antagonizing her white friends in high school. One of them even repeats the “all lives matter” excuse for the cops.

Finally deciding that she had to do the right thing, she does a TV interview that charges the cop for being a lawless executioner as well as well as fingering a brutal gang in Garden Heights that is almost as much of a impediment to Black security as the out-of-control police department. As a Ferguson-type protest takes shape in her neighborhood, she reluctantly assumes leadership even as she has to contend with the gang members who want to punish her for the TV interview.

Whether it is a function of the young adult material it is based on or just the author’s inexperience, the main problem of the film is its predictability. Characters are defined and then act according to the role that they are assigned to. Nothing comes as much of a surprise.

That being said, it is of supreme importance that such a film can make its way into Cineplexes where a documentary on Ferguson would never appear. It is even more significant that the novel it is based on has sold 1.5 million copies, presumably to young Black people who have a voice speaking for their frustrations and anger that are heard nowhere else.

The author’s story is very much like that of young people in Ferguson or any other place where a cop killing triggered BLM protests. Born in 1988, Angie Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the city in which a progressive Democratic Party city government has encouraged the growth of cooperatives serving the Black community.

Having dreamt of becoming a writer from an early age and graduating from a Christian college in Mississippi with a BFA, she resolved to write such a novel after Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland on New Years Eve in 2009. In an interview with Ebony, Grant described what amounted to as a mission, something probably remote to the average University of Iowa Writers Workshop student:

As a Black woman, I feel like I have a unique experience that we don’t often see in media portrayals of the South. When you say, “Southern” or you speak about a Southern accent, there’s always that drawl and usually from White people. That’s what people associate with the South.

But we’re all different. The Black Southern accent is different. It’s small things like that, and then big things like being from Mississippi, specifically, and hearing the stories about Emmett Till, and being familiar with that from a very young age. Or knowing that I lived maybe three minutes away from Medgar Evers’ home, and that my mom heard the gunshot that killed him. Knowing that I live in a state where whenever somebody would fight for my rights or speak up for me, they were automatically deemed the enemy by the majority.

Whatever qualms I had about the film, I feel enriched by the experience of discovering that such writers exist.

Monsters and Men

Directed and written by the African-American Reinaldo Marcus Green, this film is also inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Based on the killing of loose-cigarette peddler Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 by a cop’s chokehold that inspired the protest call “I can’t breathe”, Green tells the story of three men who were impacted in one way or another by the fictionalized account of Garner’s death (in the film, it is a cop’s gun rather than a chokehold that costs the cigarette peddler his life.)

We first meet Manny Ortega, who like Starr is an eyewitness to the killing. He is hesitant to speak out not because it would diminish his status but because as a poor and underemployed Latino, he cannot afford to piss off the cops. Like Starr, he does the right thing.

Next we meet Dennis Williams, a Black cop who is struggling to stay behind the blue wall of silence that would free him from the burden of testifying against a colleague. Having been stopped by cops six times that year in racial profiling incidents, he has been pushed to the limit. (Williams is played by Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington, who also played the cop Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s film.)

Finally, there is Zyrick, a young Black man who is stopped on his way home from baseball practice in another racial profiling incident. For his father, an MTA worker, and Zyrick, baseball opens up the possibility of a lucrative career. When his own experience being stopped by the cops resonates with the killing of the cigarette peddler, Zyrick decides to take part in a BLM protest the night before he is supposed to take part in a game with baseball scouts eyeing prospects for the big leagues. When his father learns that he is going to take part in the protest, he lashes out him for losing his focus. It is nothing but baseball that is important. Black people have been killed by the cops for no good reason since the Civil War. The only answer is to mind your own business and stay out of their way.

The next day, Zyrick shows up at the baseball game with a shirt demanding justice for the slain peddler and takes a knee with other aspiring baseball pros.

In an interview with Remezcla, a website devoted to Latino culture and politics, Green—who is half Puerto-Rican—spoke for many young filmmakers of color anxious to use film to raise political awareness in the Black and Latino community:

This film is my form of activism, however small. I think that’s really what it’s about. It’s about baby steps. It’s about talking about it, continuing the dialogue, and trying to open people’s minds to an issue that really needs to be talked about. It’s happening all around us, we can’t turn a blind eye to the things that are happening to our people and our community. It’s important for us to just stay engaged as a community, the Latino community, the Black community, it’s important for us to come together. As a collective, we’re much stronger, and we need to support one another.

Life and Nothing More

Despite its minimal funding and its brief stay in the Film Forum, this film stands out for me as a major contribution to the body of work about Black Americans going back to classics like “Nothing but a Man”. It should show up eventually as VOD and when it does, don’t waste any time. It is truly powerful.

Using neorealist conventions heightened by a very gifted non-professional cast, the story is defined by the constraints imposed by capitalist society on a single mother named Regina working as a waitress, her troubled 14-year old son, and three year old daughter. Director Antonio Méndez Esparaza spent two years in Tallahassee interviewing single Black mothers to help him write the script for a film steeped in neorealist traditions.

When we first meet Regina, she is working as a waitress at the Red Onion restaurant somewhere in Florida when an African-American man named Robert tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her. Since her husband is doing time for aggravated assault, she is wary of all men. In a subsequent conversation with Robert, she puts him off by saying “fuck all men”. Not willing to take no for an answer, he approaches her again during her break on another day and breaks down her resistance. Since there are so few pleasures in her life, being taken out for dinner and shooting pool with him later is something that she looks forward to. That is the first step in cementing a relationship that finally ends up with him moving in with her and treating the three-year-old with tenderness.

The stumbling block is her son Andrew who is as hostile to adult men as his mother is initially but with less of an incentive to open up to a man he suspects of taking advantage of his mother’s yearning for company. An argument between his mother and Robert in the middle of the night leads to a confrontation in which Andrew pulls out a gravity knife with a warning to Robert to stand down. Fed up with lover and son alike, Regina throws both men out—at least for the evening.

All of these people are living on the knife’s edge. A loss of a job, an unplanned pregnancy or an arrest can push them into a bottomless pit. The authenticity of “Life and Nothing More” is astonishing. It has a documentary-like matter of factness that serves the narrative arc. Given the flammable nature of the social relations in the world occupied by the characters, a spark can set off a conflagration at any minute. It is reminder that if the anger and frustration of Black America ever gets turned at its real enemies, the class struggle of the future will make the sixties look like child’s play.

 

November 30, 2018

At Eternity’s Gate; Lust for Life

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 30, 2018

Last week, after watching a press screening of Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Vincent Van Gogh titled “At Eternity’s Gate”, I was so struck by its divergence from the memories I had of Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 identically themed “Lust for Life” that it struck me as worth writing about the two in tandem. While I have grave reservations about Schnabel’s politics and aesthetics, I can recommend his film that is playing in theaters everywhere that are marketed to middle-brow tastes, the kind of audience that listens to NPR and votes Democratic. These are the sorts of screeners I get from publicists throughout November to coincide with NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December, the “good”, Oscar-worthy films that Harvey Weinstein used to produce until he got exposed as a serial rapist.

Willem Dafoe is superb as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate” even though at 63 he can hardly evoke the almost post-adolescent angst of the artist who died at the age of 37. Like Willem Dafoe, Kirk Douglas not only bears a striking resemblance to Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” but was only 3 years older than the artist at the time of his death. Since “Lust for Life”, as the title implies, emphasizes turbulence, Douglas was just the sort of actor who could bring that vision of Van Gogh to life. In Minnelli’s adaptation of the Irving Stone novel, Van Gogh’s life was a succession of crises that finally became too much to bear.

Stone’s work faced the same obstacles as Van Gogh’s paintings that never sold in his lifetime. It was rejected by 17 publishers until its debut in 1934. Stone was not particularly known for his politics but did take the trouble to write a novel in 1947 based on the marriage of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate who had no use for socialism. The title was “Adversary in the House”, an allusion to her.

However, there must have been just enough politics in “Lust for Life” for screenwriter Norman Corwin to feature in his script. The first fifteen minutes or so of the film depicts Van Gogh as a lay priest in a coal-mining village in the region of Borinage who immerses himself into the daily life of super-exploited workers. As a hobby, he makes drawings of the miners and their families as a kind of homage to the people in need of what Marx called an opiate.

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November 27, 2018

Dark Money; The Panama Papers

Filed under: Film,journalism,taxation — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

Two documentaries under consideration here fall with within the general rubric of investigative journalism and as such should be of interest to those who trying to get a handle on how the superrich are screwing the vast majority of the human race. “Dark Money”, which can be seen on Amazon and iTunes, describes the resistance Montanans mounted to the Koch brothers and their hired hands bid to buy the state government through their ultraright, bogus, and opaque tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups. “The Panama Papers”, an Epix film, tells the story of how a network of investigative reporters broke the story of Mossack-Fonseca. A trove of documents was furnished by a whistle-blower known only as “John Doe”. (Epix is a premium cable station site like HBO that allows you to take out a fifteen-day trial subscription. I’d take advantage of this if you want to see “The Panama Papers” that premiered yesterday.)

The idea of a typically red state like Montana with its gun-toting ranchers and farmers resisting corporate campaign contributions made legal by Citizens United might strike you as an anomaly. However, a look at the state’s history would reveal a deep-seated hostility to the copper mining industry that had poisoned the waters of Montana to such a degree that even the ranchers and farmers would not put up with it.

Anaconda Copper was the worst of them. In its open pit excavations in Butte, the company allowed copper-infused soil and rocks to seep into the Berkeley Pit, a lake formed by underground water. The combination of mineral waste and water produced an acid pool so toxic that when a flock of 3,000 Snow Geese touched down during a migration, every bird died. In the early 1900s, Anaconda did not just rule over a company town. It was more accurate to call Montana a company state under its thumb.

As part of the progressivist and socialist movements sweeping the country back then, Montana’s legislators passed a bill in 1912 that made corporate funding of election campaigns illegal. However, when the Supreme Court decided in 2010 that corporations were permitted to make campaign contributions without limits, Montana’s law was superseded to the dismay of Democrats and Republicans alike. The documentary points out that Republican state legislators were by no means happy about Koch’s network of shadowy 501(c)(4) tax-exempt groups like Americans for Prosperity and Western Tradition Partnership meddling in the electoral process.

In Montana, the battleground shifted. Instead of being able to ban the Koch brothers outright, the state election commission shifted to monitoring whether disclosure laws were being broken. If one could not prevent Koch, Inc. from dumping a million dollars into Montana, at least you could make sure to monitor the candidates they supported were not benefiting from unreported “dark money”.

In the first election campaign in Montana following the Citizens United ruling, the Koch-funded Republicans came together as an electoral bloc totally committed to their agenda. This meant first and foremost allowing corporate polluters to enjoy the kind of free rein that led to the death of 3,000 Snow Geese. If you’ve ever been to Montana, as I have to visit the Blackfoot reservation, you’ll understand how the despoliation of some of the most beautiful nature in America can move people into struggle.

The villain in this story is one Art Wittich who was elected to the state legislature after defeating a long-time Republican legislator in the primary. He and a number of other Koch loyalists mounted a coup against the old guard that, while not likely to be endorsed by the DSA, was ready to resist both “dark money” and polluted water. It was up to the state election commission to investigate how Wittich’s campaign was funded. Led by commission head Jon Motl, the campaign secured the pro bono assistance of a retired attorney named Michael Cotter, who after laboriously poring through email communications between Wittich and Koch’s hired guns as well as other incriminating documents, argued in court that Wittich never paid for a lot of the services he was receiving, including expensive direct mail campaigns, etc. But the case was ultimately decided in Cotter’s favor when a young woman who worked in the Koch-funded Right to Work Committee in Colorado stepped forward as a witness against Wittich. In the film, she states that she is into Koch brothers ideology but not when it is promoted through illegal means. Needless to say, she has not reached the point of understanding how the two go hand in hand but still to be commended for stepping forward knowing that her career in Koch-funded organizations has come to an end.

In addition to Motl and Cotter, another hero in the film is an investigative reporter named John S. Adams whose persistent reporting about the “dark money” flows helped to raise awareness in the state. When Adams and a group of other independent-minded reporters began raising money to put out a new state-wide paper reflecting their editorial principles, he was fired by The Great Falls Tribune, a Gannett newspaper. Virtually homeless, he continued covering the “dark money” story and was eventually successful in launching an online newspaper called, appropriately enough, the Montana Free Press. Bookmark it to stay informed on the future of red state politics especially in articles like “Where the jobs are: Montana’s economic landscape, visualized“.

In late 2014, a German reporter named Bastian Obermeyer was emailed by a “John Doe” who informed him that he had a massive archive of documents from the computers at Mossack-Fonseca in Panama City. This was a law firm that helped rich people all across the planet avoid paying taxes. As middle men, Mossack-Fonseca lined up banks in places like Panama, the Cayman Islands, and other Caribbean islands willing to shelter their clients’ deposits from tax collectors. In some cases, the tax shelter was legitimate. For example, someone like soccer great Lionel Messi made no effort to hide what he was doing. Star athletes are notoriously protective of their wealth even though it generally does not come exploiting labor except their own.

In other cases, those avoiding taxes might not be making dealings with Mossack-Fonseca a secret but heads of state like David Cameron in England, Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson in Iceland, Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Assad in Syria wouldn’t advertiseit either. As it happens, Cameron and Johannsson resigned under pressure after the Mossck-Fonseca news broke as did Sharif who was additionally sentenced to 10 years in prison. It should come as no surprise that nothing happened to Putin and Assad. They have learned to make transparency, accountability and respect of the popular will a crime punishable by death.

The connection between the two films should be obvious. Both expose how the rich use every means at their disposal to hold on to their wealth, while government treasuries are starved. In England, Cameron’s greed, as well as those of other rich people, meant that hiding money in banks that were part of Mossack-Fonseca’s portfolio came at the expense of the national health system, the upkeep of council housing like Grenfell Towers where a fire cost the lives of 72 residents, and other services in the public realm. This is just another tactic in the ruling class’s arsenal that serves the same ends as Americans for Prosperity et al in the USA. They spend millions to support candidates favoring tax cuts and privatization of social security, the schools, and an end to the minimalist Obamacare.

While I am sure my readers understand these things in broad brushstrokes, seeing these two films will make you an even better defender of badly needed changes in the tax laws and in how elections are funded that will at least level the playing field between the vast majority of humanity and a predatory bourgeoisie. Men like the Koch brothers, Robert Mercer, Sheldon Adelson, the Trumps, et al will destroy the planet just as long as they can buy 100-feet yachts and 10,000 square foot mansions. If the only defense against them is a party led by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, something more radical is obviously needed. The two documentaries are useful contributions to raising awareness about how to build a stiffere resistance.

November 20, 2018

The Dawn Wall; Free Solo

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

Quite by coincidence, I just finished watching press screenings of two newly released films about professional rock climbers scaling El Capitan, the 3000 foot granite rock formation in Yosemite Park that rises at a ninety degree angle from the ground. “The Dawn Wall”, which is available for sale as a DVD or VOD starting on December 4th at the film’s website covers the ascent of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson up a portion of El Capitan that had never been scaled before, mostly because it lacked the nooks and crannies that made other vertical paths more navigable. By analogy, it would be like instead of playing Bobby Fischer in his prime playing him blindfolded and after having drunk a fifth of Jack Daniels. Playing now at the Angelika in New York City, “Free Solo” is focused on Alex Hannold, whose specialty as the title indicates is rock-climbing without a rope. Maybe the analogy with Hannold’s climb up El Capitan is playing Bobby Fischer blindfolded, after dropping LSD, and washing it down with a fifth of Jack Daniels.

Mostly as a result of breakthroughs in digital photography, both films are visually spectacular—so much so that I felt like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo” half the time. Like “Man on Wire”, the great documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNqlynceGko) about Philip Petite walking a tightrope between WTC 1 and 2, you can barely stand the tension even though it was obvious from all three films that they were celebrating great achievements.

“The Dawn Wall” is mostly Tommy Caldwell’s story. It was his idea to master the Dawn Wall and Kevin Jorgeson was recruited for the two-man team. Caldwell is to rock-climbing as Muhammad Ali is to boxing or Babe Ruth was to baseball. He broke all sorts of records early on and pushed the envelope even further in a sport that practically defined envelope-pushing. In 2000, Caldwell found himself in a challenge even bigger than climbing El Capitan.

With a group of other climbers, including his girlfriend who was also a professional, Caldwell was half-way up a rock formation in Kyrgyzstan when bullets began bouncing off the rocks all around them. They were coming from the automatic rifles of Islamic fundamentalist rebels on the ground beneath them. After they were ordered to come down, they basically became hostages of the men who were ready to kill them at a moment’s notice. In fact, a Kyrgyzstani soldier who was also a captive was shot in the head along the way. As they were being led to the rebel camp by a single guerrilla up a winding path in the mountains, Caldwell consulted with his comrades. The only way to freedom was to throw the guerrilla off a cliff, a task he was willing to assume himself. After voting in favor, Caldwell jumped him from behind and threw him to what he thought was his death. At the risk of including a spoiler, I can say that the man survived the fall and was found guilty of terrorist acts by a Kyrgyzstani court.

If this was not enough drama in the superstar’s life, he was back home not far from El Capitan working on a bandsaw in a shed next to his house when he accidentally took off the top third of the index finger on his left hand that would have ended the career of any rock-climber since it is essential to getting a grip on the side of a rock wall. Showing the same kind of grit that made him choose this career in the first place, Caldwell learned to get by with less. It reminded me of how Django Reinhart became one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time even though one hand was crippled by a fire in his home when young.

In an interview with Tommy Caldwell in the press notes, we learn that in addition to the life-threatening conditions such men and women operate in, the “normal” working day is about as far as the pampered athlete’s life as you can imagine:

Generally, when you big-wall climb, you get up at first light and you climb all day long until it gets dark, no matter what. The Dawn Wall was completely different than that because we needed good conditions and really cold weather. If it’s hot your fingertips cut much more easily and the rubber on your shoes is softer and falls apart, so we had to wait until it was cold, which often meant night-time. Our daily logistics were pretty funny: we would wake up with the sun – it’s impossible to stay asleep up there without shade in the blazing sun. So you‘d wake up and just hang out in your portaledge for the whole day until night-time comes around. We would climb from about 5 o‘clock in the evening when the sun would leave the wall until 1 o‘clock in the morning, under headlamp a lot of the time. It was a good combination of a lot of time to enjoy the place that we were in and joke around, and when night-time would hit it would be down to business and it would be really intense for a few hours each night.

“The Dawn Wall” is co-directed by Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell, who have been rock-climbers themselves for many years. Brett Lowell, who has a great deal of experience in high-angle camera work, is Director of Photography. The three of them have made a great film that I recommend highly.

Caldwell makes a cameo appearance in “Free Solo” as a consultant to Alex Hannold helping him pick a route up El Capitan that would fall within the realm of possibility of someone using his bare hands rather than ropes and tools as was the case with Caldwell and Jorgeson.

We learn early on that free solo climbing is qualitatively more dangerous than what Caldwell does. Over the years, there have been a number of casualties that Hannold considers fatalistically. Like a professional racing driver, it is understood that the slightest misstep of the hands on a rock wall or on a steering wheel can lead to death.

Like Caldwell, Hannold is an odd bird. Caldwell became obsessed with rock climbing at a very early age after his father decided to toughen him up. As a shy and somewhat intellectually challenged grade schooler, his body-building father decided to take him along on dangerous outside activities including rock-climbing. A friend of Caldwell observed that he might have been found guilty of endangering a child if caught in the act. Fortunately for father and son, Caldwell took to the sport like a duck takes to water.

About a decade younger than Caldwell, Hannold became a huge fan of the superstar. We learn that unlike playing professional baseball or tennis, or even auto racing, rock-climbing does not make you rich unless you are at Caldwell’s level. In a lecture, when asked about how much money such professionals make, he answered that if you are good, you might make the same money as a dentist.

Back in 1968, a group of us were sitting around SWP headquarters in New York City chewing the fat when Derrick Morrison, an African-American party leader I deeply respected, raised eyebrows when he said that sports will die away under socialism. All of us tried to argue him down but his point was clear. Professional sports, especially boxing and football, turn men into the modern equivalent of gladiators. Take away the competition and the hunger for money and they will wither away.

Will rock-climbing survive? It just may because it involves existential choices that have little to do with capitalism. Why do children climb trees even though they know that they can break an arm or a leg if they misstep? There is a need to push the envelope that is very much akin to what makes us human. I recommend both of these very fine films as a reminder of how climbing a rock wall is as much a creative act as playing an instrument or writing a poem. Both are among the best documentaries I have seen this year even though they are not the socio-political treatises I specialize in. Enough said. Go see them.

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