Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 16, 2021

‘Til Kingdom Come

Filed under: Evangelicals,Film,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:42 pm

At the height of Tulsi Gabbard’s popularity with the “anti-imperialist” left, I was buying none of it. I had been following her pro-Assad propaganda since the civil war began, the main attraction to Grayzone, et al. What seemed to escape their attention was her close ties to the pro-Israel Evangelical movement that was on full display when she was a featured speaker at John Hagee’s July 2015 Christians United for Israel Conference. Just six months later, the Evangelicals took advantage of Trump’s election in order to put into place the facts on the ground that simultaneously satisfied Likud’s expansionist goals and the Messianic fantasies of Hagee, Pat Robertson, speaking-in-tongue madwoman Paula White and every other bible-thumping, white supremacist piece of trash.

Directed by Maya Zinshtein, an Israeli opponent of Netanyahu, “’Til Kingdom Come” lifts up a rock and exposes all the creepy, crawly Christians and Jews involved with the Evangelical/West Bank settler alliance. Although she is heard grilling some of her subjects in the film, she mostly allows them to hang themselves on their own petard. The documentary was written by Mark Monroe, who directed three terrific documentaries: The Cove, The Biggest Little Farm, and Icarus. This new film is up to his usual high standards.

The film begins with some guy hanging a metal target from the limb of tree and taking practice shots at it with a semi-automatic rifle. It turns out that he is Boyd Bingham IV, the son of Boyd Bingham III, the pastor of the Binghamtown Baptist Church that is a much smaller and much poorer version of John Hagee’s Cornerstone mega-church in San Antonio, Texas. Located in Middlesboro, Kentucky, a town long abandoned by the coal industry, Bingham feels sorry for the misery of his unemployed, poverty-stricken, drug-addicted townspeople but continues to urge them to donate money to the Evangelical project in Israel.

In addition to Boyd Bingham IV, the other chief subject is Yael Eckstein, the president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews—the most important wheeler-dealer in promoting settler interests within the Evangelical world. Her late father Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein founded the Fellowship in 1983, clearly anticipating the geopolitical forces that would reach fruition during the Trump presidency. She is loathsome.

One of the more eye-opening scenes—one that reflected the depth of research that went into the film—has Boyd Bingham IV visiting Israel where he sits down with a Palestinian Christian priest who tries to explain why Evangelical Christians are harming the interests of all Palestinians, Muslim and Christian alike. Afterward, Bingham rants about how the priest was anti-Semitic. Hung on his own petard, indeed.

Virtual Live Premiere – 8 PM EST – February 25, 2021

Nationwide Watch Now @ Home Cinema Release – February 26, 2021

January 13, 2021

Minari; First Cow

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

This year various professional film associations, including my own, will have to reckon with the absence of major Hollywood studio product at their yearly awards meeting. The pandemic cleared the table of films that admittedly are of little interest to me but far more to my colleagues in NYFCO who work for commercial outlets rather than a radical magazine like CounterPunch.

“Tenet” was the only traditional big-budget blockbuster opening in theaters. It cost $200 million to make but ended up $50 million in the red. “Tenet”, however, is not the typical Academy Awards darling. Although Christopher Nolan is considered some kind of genius (except by me), most film groups are looking for something less geared to a juvenile audience. For example, “Green Book” got an Oscar last year depicting Black pianist Don Shirley’s reliance on a white chauffeur to help him circumnavigate the Deep South’s racist exclusionary practices. A very high-minded if patronizing film.

This year indie films are getting the kind of attention they’ve never had before. Yesterday I wrote about “Nomadland” that is 97 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, earning over-the-top praise. Peter Travers, who is one of the worst purveyors of such inflated reviews, described it as a “wondrous work of art (Oscar, please)” that “joins with a never-better Frances McDormand and a cast of real-life nomads to capture what inspires the human urge to roam. It’s a new American classic.” I found it to be a humdrum account of old folks traveling around the country in vans and trailers in search of low-paying jobs to help supplement meager Social Security benefits.

After “Nomadland”, I saw another couple of indie films that have also received rave reviews and that are inside-track favorites for various awards ceremonies approaching nigh. Like “Nomadland”, “First Cow” is 97 percent Fresh. It is also brimming with indie cred. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, who makes films utterly devoid of Hollywood tropes, it is about the bromance between a Jewish and Chinese man in 1820 in the backwoods of Oregon. The two come together in a money-making scheme. Each night they surreptitiously milk a cow belonging to a rich Englishman to use for deep-fried biscuits sold to the locals. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” is even more highly rated, 100 percent Fresh. Although it is a Korean-language film, it is much more about the American experience and even overlapping thematically with “First Cow”. Steven Yeun, of “Walking Dead” fame, plays a Korean immigrant with a wife and two children who buys land in Arkansas in the 80s in order to grow crops targeting the Korean grocery marketplace. Luckily for them, the locals welcome them in, especially since they are Church-going Christians.

Distributed by the Indie-oriented A24, both films depict immigrants scrambling to make it in the USA. Reichardt’s film is much more of a critique of the capitalist system even though the terrain it occupies is so remote from what we’ve grown to expect from classics like “Heaven’s Gate” (yes, you heard that right.) This is not about greedy ranchers trampling poor farmers underfoot. Indeed, some might walk away feeling that the bromance was the real story, not desperate men trying to figure out a way to survive sans property.

“Minari” is a bit of a Rorschach test. Some will see it as a tribute to the plucky Koreans who came to the USA to make it as small proprietors against all odds. For example, I received an email today from A24 tying a film screening to Korean American Day. It contained these words from Abraham Kim, the Executive Director of the Council of Korean Americans:

We celebrate the nearly 120-year history of Korean Americans in the U.S. and our community’s invaluable contributions to this country’s innovative economy, rich culture, and robust democracy. The Korean American immigrant story is one of hard work, resilience, and hope for the future. On this Korean American Day, we are honored to commemorate the values, the sacrifice, and the vision of this dynamic group.

Some reviewers saw “Minari” as a cautionary tale. While not using the word “capitalist”, they considered Steven Yeun’s character as someone willing to sacrifice his family for the sake of making it as a businessman. Slant Magazine, one of the more sophisticated in the world of film reviews, sums up the film’s contradictions:

This orderliness of plot somewhat undermines the sense that the family is steeped in a truly messy situation. It also foregrounds the way that Minari fits into familiar structures—that it’s not aiming to do much more than give a specifically Korean American spin to a more or less standard cultural narrative about the struggle against the land to make oneself anew in America. Perhaps aptly, there’s something Reagan-esque about the ideals of an individualist America that underlie the story.

I don’t blame director Lee Isaac Chung for wanting to make a semi-autobiographical film. My problem is with making such a film that is so determined to leave out any hint that immigrants are being victimized so grievously in the recent past. The story of immigrants making it (it is left open to question whether they do in “Minari”) in the USA is burdened today by the state’s willingness to break families apart. Their only crime is making the same sacrifices as those of the family in “Minari”. The Arkansas country folk bend over backwards to welcome the family but this is a state that elected Tom Cotton to the Senate, a MAGA-type politician who backed Trump’s decision to ban Muslims from the USA. Is it possible that his views represent an Arkansas that abandoned the erstwhile friendliness to immigrants depicted in “Minari”? I tend to doubt it.

As for “First Cow”, the remoteness of the situation is far greater than that of “Minari”. The action takes place in a frontier village that seems as primitive as 8th century Lithuania. The idea that people line up for biscuits friend in oil as if they were manna from heaven does not seem plausible. The whole notion of “First Cow” is that such an animal was about as rare in Oregon in 1820 as a bear would be wandering around in Central Park today. I have no idea when the first cow arrived but neither does Kelly Reichardt apparently, according to Portland Magazine.

“When did the first cow get here? Who knows? And does it matter? Not really,” Reichardt says.

I have more of an interest in Reichardt’s career than the average film critic because she teaches film at Bard College. I thought her early films “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” were very good but have gone downhill ever since. Like “First Cow”, her “Meek’s Cutoff”, also set in frontier Oregon, was shockingly ignorant about American history. About which I wrote:

When I learned that Kelly Reichardt had made a Western about a wagon train in Oregon in 1845 relying on the help of an Indian, I had high expectations. Her earlier films, also set in Oregon, were penetrating character studies about contemporary life. “Old Joy” was about two men bonding in a hot tub in a forest retreat with homoerotic overtones, but more generally about the regrets of unfulfilled dreams. “Wendy and Lucy“ was about the struggle of a homeless woman to keep hold of the thing that she loved above all, her pet dog.

Unfortunately, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a complete disaster, a pretentious, boring, and insufferably “arty” work that gives independent film a bad name. I suppose that when I learned beforehand that Paul Dano was part of the cast, I should have avoided it. For my money, Dano is the worst actor in Hollywood since William Shatner who at least had the saving grace of not taking himself too seriously. Dano, like Reichardt, thinks he is involved with making a Big Statement. It is enough to drive one to spend a full day watching Adam Sandler movies.

The Meek referred to in the title is Stephen Meek, a character in a ridiculous looking buckskin fringe outfit who has been asked to lead a small wagon train into Oregon along the famous Oregon Trail. Unlike Daniel Boone or any other legendary mountain man, Meek could not find his way out of Grand Central Station even if you drew a path in red paint along the floor for him.

January 11, 2021

Nomadland

Filed under: aging,Film,financial crisis,housing,poverty,Travel — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

Generally, I try to read as little as possible about a film before I watch a screener in order to avoid the possibility that I might be influenced by other critics. All I knew about “Nomadland” is that it starred Frances McDormand as a sixtyish woman, who after losing everything in the 2008 financial crisis, becomes a “nomad”. This means that she travels around the country in a van taking menial jobs like in an Amazon warehouse or scrubbing toilets. With this in mind, I wondered if I was about to see a “Grapes of Wrath” updated for our epoch.

The film begins with a Steinbeckian touch. We see Fern (McDormand) loading her van with her belongings after the only employer in Empire, Nevada—a sheetrock factory—has closed for good. Like the Joads in “Grapes of Wrath” being foreclosed, she is forced by economic circumstances to look for salvation elsewhere. Like the Joads with their loaded jalopy, her road to a better life is filled with potholes. Her first job is working in an Amazon warehouse, where we expect her to end up either injured or too exhausted to keep up with the pace. To my surprise, she and other elderly women lugging cartons onto conveyor belts appear to be holding their own. After work, she retires to her van, eats a rudimentary meal, and prepares for the next day. So, I wondered when was the clash with the capitalist class going to begin.

It turns out that the film had less in common with “Grapes of Wrath” than it does with road movies like “Easy Rider” or “Five Easy Pieces”. The nomads in “Nomadland” are men and women who travel around the country in RVs or vans rather than motorcycles but with the same sense of wanderlust. Since many of you are probably not familiar with “Five Easy Pieces,” this stars Jack Nicholson (who was also in “Easy Rider” as a companion to the two motorcycle road warriors) as a man working on oil rigs in the southwest, who lives in cheap motels, and hangs out in tawdry roadhouses just like other roughnecks. It turns out, however, that this is just an appearance. In reality, Nicholson is from a wealthy family and a trained classical pianist running away from his past.

Shortly, I will explain how this connects with McDormand’s character but first I will point out that director Chloé Zhao never had the slightest interest in agitprop. In a note attached to my DVD screener, she revealed her intentions:

Having grown up in big cities in China and England, I’ve always been deeply drawn to the open road — an idea I find to be quintessentially American — the endless search for what’s beyond the horizon. It’s filled with stories of hardship, perseverance and co-existence — people helping each other, working together to survive when they disagree on almost everything. It was the spirit of the Old West and it’s still the spirit of the road today.

The open road? That’s what Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters sought in “Easy Rider”. Instead of horses, they rode Harleys. Likewise, the elderly men and women wandering around the country for dead-end jobs have their own steeds: vans, trailers, and RV’s. In “Easy Rider”, the two heroes stop at a hippie commune to enjoy drugs and sex. As for Zhao’s nomads, including Fern, they end up at a rent-free trailer park where communal meals are shared. No drugs, no sex, but the old folks get by drinking beer and making small talk.

As for the comparison with “Five Easy Pieces”, we learn (spoiler alert) that Fern has a wealthy sister who has invited her numerous times to come live with her. But Fern prefers to live in a tiny van without running water and heat. The closest the film comes to depicting the miseries of being homeless (the nomads like to describe themselves as houseless), we see Fern with an onset of diarrhea that she relieves by crapping into a bucket in her van.

The film is based on a nonfiction work of the same name written by Jessica Bruder in 2017. I have no idea whether Bruder downplayed the miseries of the people she interviewed, but a NY Times review by Arlie Russell Hochschild cannot help but question the lack of a class perspective. Hochschild is the author of a book titled “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” that tried to get to the bottom of why people in Louisiana voted for rightwing politicians despite being screwed by them through low-paying jobs and exposure to toxic chemicals. Like Bruder, she lived among the people she interviewed and tried to bond with them. This was her perceptive take on something that was missing in the book and, more egregiously so, in the film (the Linda mentioned in the excerpt is a character a lot like Fern):

What forces set these nomads in motion? Here I wish Bruder had given us a view from beyond the driver’s seat. For years, stockholders have taken the lion’s share of rising corporate profits, leaving a shrinking share to the middle- and working-class worker. The current administration and Congress aim to cut the nation’s safety net and to loosen regulations on banks, stirring fears of another devastating crash. The stage seems set to leave Americans on their own to travel a potentially bumpy economic road, a scene that would seem to fly in the face of the picket-fence stability and localism bandied about in conservative rhetoric. Republicans like to talk about “freedom,” but the tax reform they’re currently proposing would most likely widen the gap between rich and poor even further, reducing Linda’s freedom to stay put if she wanted to.

As for our own nomads, I recommend Marxmailer Michael Yates’s “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue”. After retiring from decades of teaching economics, Michael and his wife Karen became nomads for many of the same reasons as the film’s subjects. They enjoyed being footloose and were open to taking low-paying jobs that were often the only kind available in the rugged back country they hoped to see in their peregrinations. Also, they always stayed indoors even if it was in a cheap motel! At Michael’s blog, titled the same as his book, you can read a chapter. From what I’ve read in this book, it would have made for a much more interesting film:

Again in Flagstaff, we were enjoying the exhibits in the Museum of Northern Arizona. We ended our visit with a stop at the museum’s bookstore. We were admiring the Indian-made works of art for sale when an Indian artist came in and showed the manager some of his jewelry and asked if the museum was interested in buying his pieces. Apparently the craftsmanship was good, but the Indian had been drinking and was known to the manager. The manager and his assistant treated this man as if he were a pathetic drunk unworthy of their time. He kept lowering his price, giving up whatever pride he had to these white people with money. A few minutes later, he was dismissed. After he left, the two museum staffers mocked him. The assistant, not realizing her ignorance, said that perhaps it was time for the Indian to join AA. We left the museum with heavy hearts. It was as if the history of white oppression of Indians had been reenacted in microcosm before our eyes.

In Estes Park, people smugly said about a group of shabby riverside shacks not far from our cabin, “Oh, that’s where the Mexicans live.” The local peace group didn’t bother to solicit support from local Mexicans because “They probably wouldn’t be interested. They have to work too hard and wouldn’t have time.” We were talking to a jewelry store owner who, after remarking on how much safer (often a code word for “whiter”) Estes Park was than his former home in Memphis, Tennessee, said that the Estes Park crime report was pretty small and those arrested always had names you couldn’t pronounce. (Those damned Mexicans again.) In the laundromat we met a woman from the Bayview section of Brooklyn, and she said that she had moved here because you couldn’t recognize her Brooklyn neighborhood anymore. She told us, without I think realizing how racist she sounded, that there were so many Arabs there now that locals call it “Bay Root.” “Get it?,” she said, “Bay Root.”

January 8, 2021

Marighella

Filed under: Brazil,Counterpunch,Film,Guerrilla warfare — louisproyect @ 4:58 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 8, 2021

“Marighella” hearkens back to the best political films of the 1960s like Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” and Costa-Gravas’s “State of Siege”. Set in 1968, it tells the story of Carlos Marighella’s desperate struggle against the military dictatorship in Brazil. Founder and leader of Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN), Marighella was just one of many revolutionaries in Latin America who broke with the Communist Party to launch either an urban or rural guerrilla group hoping to emulate the July 26th Movement in Cuba. Unlike “The Battle of Algiers,” this story does not have a happy ending. The film concludes with the Brazilian cops firing dozens of rounds into Marighella’s body as he sits in the driver’s seat of a parked VW Beetle. Like Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” it is a tragedy about the failure of the revolutionary left in Latin America to help realize Che’s call for “Two, Three, Many Vietnams.” There were many embryonic Vietnams but they all aborted. Unlike Cuba or Vietnam, there was never a social base adequate to the revolutionary goals. To the credit of director Wagner Moura, this is the overarching theme of this film that will be of supreme interest to CounterPunch readers.

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January 1, 2021

MLK/FBI; One Night in Miami

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Film,Malcolm X — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 1, 2021

Two new films directed by African-Americans are essential guides to the Black struggle in the USA during the 1960s. Sam Pollard’s documentary “MLK/FBI” covers J. Edgar Hoover’s racist attempt to “neutralize” Martin Luther King Jr. while Regina King’s narrative film “One Night in Miami” imagines the conversations that took place between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, NFL legend Jim Brown and soul singer Sam Cooke at the Hampton Hotel in Miami on the evening of February 25, 1964. That was the night that Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston and became world heavyweight champion and who announced to the world the next day that he was now to be called Muhammad Ali.

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December 26, 2020

Belushi

Filed under: comedy,Film,television — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Like many other baby boomers (technically speaking, I predated them as having been born during the war), I became a big fan of Saturday Night Live when it premiered in 1975. I had more than the usual interest in the show because I had been a good friend of Chevy Chase at Bard College and was following his career.

As such, I was curious to see what the Showtime documentary on John Belushi would have to say, given the interviews with Chevy and other personalities who worked with him. Belushi was interesting enough in his own right for me to have read Bob Woodward’s “Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi” back in 1984. Woodward’s lurid (how could it have been anything else?) biography reminded me a lot of Albert Goldman’s Elvis Presley biography that came out the same year and which I also read. I was struck by the similarities between the two books and the two men. Woodward and Goldman had little sympathy for their subjects and wrote books that were meant to portray them as self-indulgent freaks done in by their gargantuan drug habits and their huge popularity.

In 2005, Tanner Colby wrote another Belushi biography that relied exclusively on taped interviews with his friends and co-professionals. As an oral history, it was a badly needed corrective to the Woodward hatchet job. The Showtime documentary relies on these interviews as well as new material to produce both a tribute to the comedian as well as an effort to understand his decline and fall. For those who are old enough to remember SNL in its prime and those who want to see how good TV sketch comedy can be, I strongly recommend a look at the film, which is titled “Belushi.”

Directed by 58-year old filmmaker R.J. Cutler, it turns Colby’s interviews and newer material into a very good documentary, which is not only an examination of a personal tragedy but implicitly a warning about the dangers of worshipping the bitch-goddess success. Belushi started off as a political radical, having been within 20 feet of the police riot in Chicago in 1968, and saw the theater as his calling, not television that he found vulgar and not worth his time. Indeed, SNL co-producer Dick Ebersole had to plead with Belushi to join the show even as fellow co-producer Lorne Michaels feared that he would be more trouble than he was worth.

Belushi was the son of an Albanian immigrant who put in long hours working behind the counter of a diner he owned in Chicago. Born in 1949, he was typical of my generation. Rebellious to the core, he saw comedy as a means to challenge the status quo just as I saw radical politics. If the ratio between radical art and radical politics was 80 percent to 20 in his case, the numbers were reversed in my own life. In college, Belushi recruited a couple of his friends to become the “The West Compass Trio” that became the talk of the town in Chicago. Belushi’s comic power on stage soon caught the attention of Bernard Sahlins, the head of the city’s legendary Second City improvisational comic troupe and brother to famous anthropologist and fellow CounterPunch contributor Marshall Sahlins.

Belushi joined the group and became its star, alongside future SNL star Gilda Radner. Meanwhile, in NYC, comedy was taking a new and experimental form through Ken Shapiro’s Channel One, an off-off-Broadway revue that satirized TV. Ken was a classmate at Bard alongside Chevy, who had been developing the material down the hall from me in a mansion called Ward Manor that had been turned into a dorm. Chevy joined the cast of Channel One with other Bardians like Lane Sarasohn and my good friend Richard Allen.

In 1972, Chase and Belushi’s paths crossed as they both became cast members of the off-Broadway National Lampoon Lemmings in NYC that was a satire on the Woodstock musical festival. It was there that Belushi developed his over-the-top imitation of Joe Cocker performing “A Little Help From My Friends”. From there, Belushi went on to write and perform for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, where he was soon joined by Danny Ackroyd who had been a member of the Second City revue in Toronto. Chase, Ackroyd, and Belushi would then go on to become the original cast members of SNL with Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue and Gilda Radner. This group of 8 would leave its mark on SNL that declined over the years, largely because Lorne Michaels preferred to recycle stale material that would satisfy an increasingly dimwitted fan base that doted on shtick. Although nobody interviewed in “Belushi” commented on this decline, it was obvious to me that Belushi was part of the problem. By getting easy laughs, such as his “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” skit, he helped the show drift away from sharp political commentary.

Yes, Belushi was a gifted physical comedian but I preferred Chevy’s razor-sharp Weekend Update:

Chevy Chase: Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not. The top story tonight: The Senate Intelligence Committee has revealed that the CIA has been involved in no less than nine assassination plots against various foreign leaders. Commented President Ford upon reading the report, quote, “Boy, I’m sure glad I’m not foreign.”

Later, Mr. Ford pierced his left hand with a salad fork at a luncheon celebrating Tuna Salad Day at the White House. Alert Secret Service agents seized the fork and wrestled it to the ground.

Former Governor of California Ronald Reagan formally announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday. Reagan stated, quote, “I haven’t lost my looks yet, and I’m still as knowledgeable on foreign affairs as I was when I was narrating Death Valley Days.”

Meanwhile in Miami, a man tried to attack Reagan with a fake pistol a few short hours after the announcement. Reagan said he was not shaken, but later, he about-faced on an issue that he strongly opposed for years, calling for strenuous toy gun control legislation.

Well, after a long illness, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died Wednesday. Reactions from world leaders were varied. Held in contempt as the last of the fascist dictators in the West by some, he was also eulogized by others, among them Richard Nixon, who said, quote “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States. He earned worldwide respect for Spain through firmness and fairness.” Despite Franco’s death and an expected burial tomorrow, doctors say the dictator’s health has taken a turn for the worse.

It wasn’t just that Belushi was good at physical comedy, a throwback to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in many ways. It was also that his skits incorporated brilliant mashups of wildly disparate elements. For example, we see him working behind the registration desk in a hotel but in the guise of a samurai warrior:

The documentary shows Belushi explaining how he got the idea for the skit. He was up in his hotel room and stumbled across some vintage samurai film. The first thought that came to him was how to work that into an SNL routine.

For someone like myself, a longtime fan of Akira Kurosawa, this skit, and even those that recycled the same material, made me laugh.

After watching the documentary, I had a sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t I seen a satire of samurai movies before? Where or when?

All of a sudden, I realized that Sid Caesar had featured the same kind of material on his legendary television show back in 1956, except that he was satirizing a film genre unfamiliar to most Americans. He called his parody “Ubetu”, an obvious reference to Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 “Ugetsu”.

Could John Belushi have seen Caesar’s “Ubetu”? It’s impossible to say but one thing is clear. For the six years Sid Caesar had a weekly show on NBC, he and his fellow writers and performers were pushing the envelope in the same way that Chevy Chase, John Belushi were doing twenty years later. With Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen writing for him, Caesar’s shows were made for the ages.

You had the same kind of powerhouse team working for SNL early on. Unlike Sid Caesar, Lorne Michaels had staying power. Young people continue to watch the show because it is geared to a young person’s tastes rather than to the connoisseur sensibilities of a baby boomer in the year 1975. I avoid commenting on anything going on at SNL today because I simply never watch it, except for whatever shows up on YouTube.

Besides Belushi’s illness (drug addiction is an illness), you cannot escape the feeling that his sad decline and fall was mostly attributable to his worries that he had reached an impasse in his career. He tried making more “mature” films but the critics and the audiences hated them. As his health declined, he was incapable of carrying out the madcap physical stunts that made “Animal House” so memorable.

As for Belushi memorabilia, let me conclude with this photo of Belushi take in 1981 by acclaimed photographer Marcia Resnick, an old friend who wrote this as a preface:

— In early September 1981 I spotted John Belushi in the New York after hours club AM PM. I asked him when he was going to do a photo session with me for my series Bad Boys: A Compendium of Punks, Poets and Politicians. He said, “Now”. I didn’t believe him, until upon returning home at six am I saw a limousine waiting in front of my building. I turned on the music as John and his entourage filed into my loft. I then directed John to an area lit by strobe lights and I began shooting.

John paced around like a caged animal, fidgeting incessantly. He seemed unable to sit still for my camera, uncanny for someone known for being deliberate and fluid when performing. “Where are the props?”, he queried. I first gave him sunglasses, then a scarf. He requested a beer, then a glass. After donning a black wool ski mask that he took off a nearby mannequin, he settled into a chair. Only his eyes and mouth peeked through the openings in the mask. The large, ominous and anonymous ‘executioner’ had finally reached his comfort zone.

December 12, 2020

Mank

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:52 am

CounterPunch, December 11, 2020

In the first twenty minutes or so of David Fincher’s overrated Netflix film “Mank,” we see Gary Oldman lying in bed with his leg in a full cast slugging down one whiskey after another. Mank is the nickname of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Kane,” widely regarded as the greatest American film ever made. It is 1940 and Orson Welles has tasked him with cranking out a script in sixty days while he recovers from a serious automobile accident in a country retreat. There are two women trying to keep him productive, a thankless task given his alcoholism. One is a German nurse who barely escaped the Nazi death camps. The other is a British secretary who is both taking dictation from Mank and nagging him to stay sober and focus on his work.

Played by Gary Oldman in a scenery-chewing performance that impressed most critics, Mank is always coming up with some arch, overly clever dialog that has about as much relationship to the way that people speak as I do with running in a marathon. When the secretary learns that Mank was a frequent guest of William Randolph Hearst, she asks him what his mistress Marion Davies was like. He replies: “Why is it when you scratch a prim, starchy schoolgirl, you get a swooning motion picture fan who has forgotten all she learned about the Battle of Hastings.” The secretary, of course, is the starchy schoolgirl and his reference to the Battle of Hastings was a put-down since he assumed she knew nothing about it. She immediately shows him up by identifying the day it took place, which is the kind of drama you can expect from this film.

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November 28, 2020

John Brown’s Puritanical roots

Filed under: Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

When I discovered that Showtime had scheduled a series devoted to John Brown, my first reaction was positive. With so much of public opinion moving against white supremacy, it was about time that the abolitionist got a favorable fictional treatment, especially since he had been treated as a destructive fanatic by Hollywood. The 1940 “Santa Fe Trail” was typical. In my 2012 review, I noted:

Blacks are portrayed in the film in the same way as they are portrayed in “Gone with the Wind”, as bamboozled victims of Northern do-gooders. John Brown is depicted as a manipulative fanatic who cares little about their fate, once he has freed them from their owners. At one point, a male ex-slave tells Stuart that all he wants is to go back to Texas and live a normal life once again. That, of course, can only mean a return to slavery.

After watching a trailer for the Showtime series titled “The Good Lord Bird”, I felt cheated once again. Unlike the 1940 film in which Brown is depicted as a fanatical terrorist, this time he is much more of a tragicomic buffoon. Watch the trailer and you’ll see Ethan Hawke chewing the scenery.

To my dismay, I saw that Jacobin’s film critic Eileen Jones described it as “good as you hoped”. Despite being a Berkeley professor (or maybe because of), I find her judgements questionable at best. In this case, it was wretched. This is how she saw it:

The series seems to have been designed for me personally, so of course I love it — from the spaghetti Western–style animated opening credit sequence to the gospel music-filled score to every last spittle fleck flying out of John Brown’s mouth as he calls upon the might of the Lord to help him smite the slavers. But I’m not sure where that leaves the rest of you.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it leaves me sick to my stomach.

Totally enraged by the left consensus on this trash, I resolved to read the novel it was based on and a newish biography by David S. Reynolds titled “John Brown: Abolitionist”. The novel was written by an African-American named James McBride that won a National Book Award in 2013. I’ll have much more to say about it later on but suffice it to say that it depicts Frederick Douglass as a drunken pedophile.

I am now reading Reynolds’s biography and can recommend it highly. He describes it as a “cultural biography”, which is a term he coined to describe a methodology in which the subject is placed in a historical context. To get an idea of the richness of his understanding of John Brown and his cultural context, let me cite the first few pages of chapter two, which deals with Brown’s roots in Puritanism.


A Southern political cartoon of 1863 spoke volumes about the paranoia John Brown had aroused in the Confederacy. The cartoon, titled “Worship of the North,” pictures an altar with the word PURITANISM blazoned across its base and FREE-LOVE, SPIRIT RAPPING, ATHEISM, and NEGRO WORSHIP on the bricks above it. On the altar sits an ugly Lincoln, beside whom lies the dying American Union. Flanking the altar are antislavery leaders of the Republican Party, including Charles Sumner and William Henry Seward. An African in tribal dress looms at the side of the group holding an odd-looking spear. Hovering over all are Satan and a statue of John Brown, both also holding spears.

The cartoon illustrates the often-neglected fact that the Civil War was far more than a struggle between the North and the South over social issues such as slavery, economics, and states rights. These social issues were intensified by profound cultural differences, real and perceived. John Brown was at the epicenter of this conflict.

The South’s view of him as a demonic Northerner is made clear in the cartoon, where his statue stands like an idol above the altar on the same level as Satan. From the South’s perspective, the “Worship of the North” was devil worship, and John Brown was Satan’s main accomplice.

The spears held by the statue, Satan, and the African represent the pikes John Brown had distributed at Harpers Ferry among the blacks he temporarily freed from slavery. He had designed the pikes, made of bowie knives attached to poles, to be used as weapons by the blacks against white pursuers. For Southerners, the John Brown pike epitomized the twin horrors of Northern aggression and slave revolts.

The other images in the cartoon were also linked with the satanic Brown. Lincoln and his antislavery cronies, from this Southern perspective, were Brown’s worshipers. The moribund American Union was his victim. The armed African was the product of his raid, as was the North’s sympathy for blacks, parodied in the racist phrase NEGRO WORSHIP.

The remaining words on the altar indicated the depth of the South’s hostility. SPIRIT RAPPING and FREE-LOVE were two of the countless “isms” the South associated with Northern society. Movements such as spiritualism, free love, Fourierism, Transcendentalism, and women’s rights had, in fact, sprouted prolifically in the antebellum North, a society caught in the throes of reform and creative ferment. These Northern movements prompted both disgust and smugness in the South. For Southerners, Northern society was wild and anarchic, given to ever-shifting fads that were essentially godless (hence the ATHEISM on the cartoon altar). Abolitionism was an especially wicked example of Northern fanaticism. The South, which considered itself a stable society supported by the “civilizing” institution of slavery, regarded the North as a chaos of homegrown theories rooted in that Ur-source of subversiveness: New England Puritanism.

The PURITANISM at the base of the cartoon was as telling as was the Brown statue at the top. From the South’s perspective, seventeenth-century Puritanism had contributed to the Northern cultural evils that found their culmination in Brown.

Normally, Puritanism does not factor in histories of the Civil War. A widely held view is that Puritanism, far from stirring up warlike emotions, had by the nineteenth century softened into a benign faith in America’s millennial promise. Supposedly, it buttressed mainstream cultural values, fostering consensus and conformity.

For many in the Civil War era, however, Puritanism meant radical individualism and subversive social agitation. In 1863, the Democratic congressman Samuel Cox typically blamed the Civil War on disruptive New England reform movements that he said were rooted in Puritanism. He insisted that fanatical Abolitionism caused the war, and, in his words, “Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism. . . . Puritanism is a reptile which has been boring into the mound, which is the Constitution, and this civil war comes in like a devouring sea!” Charles Chauncey Burr, another defender of the South, bewailed “this terrible Puritan war.” Burr painted the history of the North as a dark drama of aggressive Puritanism:

The nature of Puritanism is to tolerate nothing that it dislikes, and to fight every thing that dislikes it. . . . Nothing escapes it. About a third of a century ago it drove at slavery—swore that it would either break up slavery, or break up the Union. . . . It organized, sent forth agents and lecturers, printed tracts and newspapers, to fill the Northern mind full of its own fanaticism, and to teach the slaves how to poison or murder their masters. . . . On, on, this implacable Puritanism drove, destroying social unity, and sowing the seeds of anarchy, despotism and war, until its harvest of death was ready to be gathered.

This demonization of Puritanism made its way into Southern war songs, such as “The Southern Cross,” which painted the South as peaceful and free until ruined by the “Puritan” North:

How peaceful and blest was America’s soil,
‘Till betrayed by the guile of the Puritan demon,
Which lurks under virtue, and springs from its coil,
To fasten its fangs in the life blood of freemen.

What linked Puritanism with Northern reform was its powerful heritage of antinomianism—the breaking of human law in the name of God. Antinomian rebels from Anne Hutchinson onward put divine grace above social codes. In the nineteenth century this spirit fostered a law-flouting individualism that appeared variously in militant Abolitionism, Transcendentalist self-reliance, and the “individual sovereignty” championed by anarchists and free-love activists—a pervasive individualism parodied in “Worship of the North” by the word EGO that beams from two suns in the top corners of the cartoon.

Northerners, like Southerners, associated these movements with radical Puritanism, but often from a positive perspective. In his 1844 lecture “New England Reformers,” Emerson declared that the “fertile forms of antinomianism among the elder puritans seemed to have their match in the plenty of the new harvest of reform.” Emerson admired the self-reliant spirit behind the reforms. “In each of these movements,” he said, “emerged a good result, an assertion of the sufficiency of the private man.” A Northern journalist went so far as to say: “Puritanism and nothing else can save this nation. . . . The Puritan element, which demands religious freedom, as the birthright of Heaven, in matters spiritual, is the nourisher of that civil liberty which releases the body from secular despotism in matters temporal.”

Northern soldiers were proud to accept the sobriquet “Puritan.” A Union marching song, “My Northern Boy to the War Has Gone!” pictured a Union soldier at Antietam carrying his grandfather’s sword, which linked him to the Puritan past:

His Puritan Grandsire’s sword gleamed bright
Where hosts were in strife engaging;
And many a Rebel eye clos’d in night,
While the contest fierce was raging!

November 27, 2020

Mangrove

Filed under: Black nationalism,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 27, 2020

With striking parallels to the story Aaron Sorkin told—very problematically—in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” brings to life a much more obscure historical struggle against judicial injustice. This is the first in a series of five films McQueen made for the BBC about Black life in England. The Mangrove was a restaurant Trinidad immigrant Frank Crichlow opened in Notting Hill in west London in 1968, home to many other Caribbean immigrants who took advantage of coming from a former colony to start a new life. With no other aspirations except to serve up curry dishes and a congenial social gathering for fellow Blacks, Crichlow soon found the British cops bent on destroying his business and making life miserable for people of color. McQueen dedicated the film to George Floyd in open recognition of the black struggle internationally.

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November 21, 2020

Soros

Filed under: Film,Soros — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Opening yesterday as Virtual Cinema, “Soros” is a flabby, toothless documentary that I can still recommend as a clinical study of the self-deception of one of the most powerful political philanthropists of the past half-century. I use the term political to distinguish him from the average billionaire philanthropist like Bill Gates who has little direct interest in toppling governments that don’t conform to his ideological predispositions.

Directed by Jesse Dylan, it comes across as a puff piece made to order for commemorating George Soros’s noble deeds. Nobody could be better suited to this task than Bob Dylan’s son Jesse, who did video production work for George Soros’s Open Society at one point. You can get an idea of where he is coming from by his earlier work, including a music video titled “Yes We Can,” inspired by Barack Obama’s campaign for President.

The film is most useful as an overview of George Soros’s life and career that by necessity must account for the hatred toward him from anti-Semites and fascists across the planet. As a speculator, a Jew and a political powerhouse, he naturally conforms to the stereotypes found throughout right-wing social media. To allow the right to make its case against Soros, Dylan calls upon Tucker Carlson whose complaint is that nobody should be allowed to interfere in other country’s affairs through the leverage billions of dollars afford him. Against Carlson’s rather hypocritical indictment, the scale tips in the favor of at least a dozen Open Society staff members and other NGO heavyweights who pour out their hearts on behalf of the ninety-year old potentate. Missing entirely is a single voice from the left that could flesh out the grievances briefly alluded to in the film.

For example, Viktor Orban is trotted out as a typical crypto-fascist, anti-Semitic figure who expelled Soros’s Central European University from Budapest. There is a brief mention of Soros’s sponsorship of Orban during the time Soros was cultivating a network of intellectuals and disillusioned ex-Communists as part of an effort to restore private property in the country of his birth. However, there is no explanation of why so many Hungarians turned against its benefactor. One of Soros’s fans seemed perplexed by the failure of a nation that despised Communism to appreciate someone who was key to its overthrow.

To understand the emergence of the rightwing boomerang against Soros, you have understand how he helped spawn the fascist tendencies himself doing what he does best: making money. The Hungarians probably had no idea what they were getting into when they gave Soros carte blanche to restructure their society. In 2010, Soros’s firm was fined $2.5 million for illegal trades in Hungary’s largest bank, the OTP. Through short sales, Soros made a fortune even if Hungarians got the shitty end of the stick. On April 2, 2009, the NY Times reported:

In a small walk-up apartment on the outskirts of Budapest, George Ivanyi, a founder of the Association of Bank Loan Victims, does his best to cope with an unceasing flow of Hungarians who have come to seek advice because they can no longer pay their mortgages after the forint’s collapse. Volunteer law students sip Red Bull while they counsel couples, and amid the buzz of activity a perpetually ringing phone goes unanswered.

“I feel the desperation of the people,” Mr. Ivanyi said. “The banks are responsible – but so is the government. They should not have approved these loans.”

One woman, he recounts, was so overwhelmed when the monthly mortgage bill on her Japanese yen-denominated loan from OTP suddenly soared 50 percent that she ingested a dose of rat poison and narrowly escaped death.

I first became interested in Soros around the time I began opposing how Western banks were attempting to break apart Yugoslavia. At the time, liberals everywhere were demonizing Milosevic, who I never put on the same level as Assad. Whatever his flaws, and they certainly were ample, he—unlike Donald Trump—never refused to resign after he lost an election in 2000.

Soros was trying to transform Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Russia into “Open Societies”, a fancy word for constitutional democracies that could save humanity from the evils of Nazism and Communism. Inspired by Karl Popper’s 1945 “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, Soros dedicated himself to overthrowing Communism since, after all, B-29s had already taken out Nazism.

After narrowly escaping the Judeocide, George Soros was encouraged by his father to enroll in the London School of Economics after emigrating to London in 1945. Failing the admission exams, he was not dissuaded. He snuck into LSE lectures over a two year period and absorbed the ideas of a school that was founded by the Fabian Society and had close ties to the Labour Party in its early days.

However, by the time Soros got there, the LSE had evolved to the right, largely under the influence of Friedrich Hayek who held roost there. Frankfurt School refugees were never considered for the faculty and headed straight to the USA where they were more welcome. Under Hayek’s stewardship, the LSE had become similar to the U. of Chicago economics department and an ideological foe of the Cambridge school that was committed to Keynesian orthodoxy. Karl Popper’s seminars were the main influence on Soros. Karl Popper was a close friend of Hayek and an ideological soulmate. Both men were traumatized by the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary upheavals of their youth and were predisposed to blame fascism and socialism equally. In a letter to Hayek in 1944, Popper stated, “I think I have learnt more from you than from any other living thinker, except perhaps Alfred Tarski.” (Tarski was a logician and mathematician.)

Like Francis Fukuyama, the author of “The End of History and the Last Man”, Popper exploited the victory of Western democracies over both fascism and Communism. They predicted a new age of political democracies where the right to assemble peacefully and vote in multi-party democracies would be sacrosanct. They didn’t think too much about the emergence of groups like Golden Dawn or other fascist parties in Europe since the economy was still expanding and jobs were relatively easy to come by. When one financial crisis after another in the past three decades began to depress the wages and welfare state benefits of both the USA and Western Europe, the liberal bourgeoisie had no answers. The 70+ million votes for Donald Trump should illustrate that.

Ironically, Jesse Dylan neglected to pay attention to Soros’s own worries about the failing economic system that he had done so much to create. In 1999, he wrote a book titled “The Crisis of Global Capitalism”, in which he wrote that what he calls “market fundamentalism” may be “a greater threat to open society than totalitarian government today.” Jeff Madrick, a liberal economist, interviewed Soros that year in the NY Review of Books. This exchange has an eerie resonance to our problems today:

JM: You call the current faith in free-market ideology “market fundamentalism.” That has overtones of religiosity, absolutism, coercion.

GS: Because we are disappointed with the policies of governments—and with plenty of justification—we tend to idealize the market as something that can take care of everything. And just as Marx claimed communism was based on a scientific theory of history, market fundamentalism relies on an allegedly scientific economic theory. Basically, I think it was Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who were the main movers in adopting a vulgarized version of laissez-faire economics, turning it into a kind of fundamentalist position.

Neither Soros nor Madrick have a clue as to why governments everywhere are gravitating toward “market fundamentalism”. It also makes you wonder what Soros would disparage this tendency since his guru Karl Popper was a Hayek acolyte, after all. Some say that it is a function of greed. In the good old days, the bourgeoisie was kinder and more generous toward the people it ruled, a combination of noblesse oblige and tactical wisdom. Who, after all, would want to antagonize workers to the point that they vote for Donald Trump. It is not greed, however, that is driving class inequality. It is rather the logic of capital that dictates runaway shops, deregulation, union-busting and all the other characteristics of the neoliberal economy. The capitalist class is riven with contradictions. It cannot provide well-playing jobs that put it at a disadvantage with its rivals. It might have been Trump’s major “accomplishment” to push through deregulation measures that have left Americans subject to toxic air, water and food. However, it was Ted Kennedy who was the architect of the deregulation of the airline industry that serves as model for all that followed.

Poor George Soros must have trouble sleeping overnight seeing the rise of fascist tendencies everywhere. After spending billions on building “open societies”, he sees them closing everywhere. Now, as the scapegoat of the alt-right, Soros is blamed for funding BLM and antifa. While he certainly has not funded antifa, there is evidence that he has given money to BLM. So have other deep-pocketed liberal foundations. Even though it is only apocryphal, it is still worth paraphrasing what Lenin said. “The foundations will give us the money we will use to buy the rope with which we will hang them.’

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