Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 17, 2018

Rodents of Unusual Size; Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco

Filed under: Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

At first blush, the two documentaries “Rodents of Unusual Size” and “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco” seem to have very little in common. The first is about the introduction of nutrias from Argentina into Louisiana in the 1930s, an invasive species that has wreaked havoc on the wetlands on the southern coast. The second is about a charismatic fashion illustrator who was part of the wild party scenes at places like Max’s Kansas City in New York and Club Sept in Paris in the 1970s. But what they have in common is the fashion industry and social history with fascinating glimpses into Cajun country and the cultural underground that swirled around figures such as Andy Warhol, Karl Lagerfeld and models like Grace Jones. It turns out that the nutria were introduced in order to launch a native fur industry in Depression-wracked America while Antonio Lopez was a product of the subculture of a fashion industry deeply influenced by the 1960s radicalization that unlike Depression-era has left profound markers on race, gender and sexuality. As distant as the labor struggles of the 30s seem today, the 1960s remains relevant 50 years after its passing as symbolized by the endless controversies over “diversity”.

In 1938, E.A. McIlhenny, whose Tabasco sauce is a key ingredient of Bloody Marys, started a nutria farm on Avery Island, Louisiana near his factory. For reasons unknown, he decided to release them into the wild where they began to proliferate. For the next 30 years or so, they had no big environmental impact comparable to the introduction of rabbits into Australia, another invasive species.

This was because they were a plentiful and cheap alternative to mink, chinchilla, ermine and other furs that wealthy women could afford. Trappers poured into the wetlands and bagged dozens per day, which were turned into coats in New York’s garment industry. For the wives of the men working in garment factories making mink coats, it was only nutria or muskrat that their wives could show off in Catskill hotels.

PETA changed all that when activists began to throw red paint on fur coats, not distinguishing between a 2,000 dollar mink coat and a 200 dollar nutria. This led to a collapse of the trapping industry and a mammoth expansion of the nutria population that led to vegetation being consumed to the point that swamps were turned into deserts. Under assault already from oil and gas exploration, the nutrias were destroying the natural obstacles to flooding that devastated New Orleans in 2005.

One of the victims of Hurricane Katrina was a septuagenarian fisherman whose 5 bedroom house near the shoreline was destroyed by flooding. Ironically, his part-time work trapping and shooting nutria has helped him to rebuild.

“Rodents of an Unusual Size” provides insights into the Cajun world that has had a remarkable talent for survival going back into the 19th century. We hear one man liken the local hunters to the beasts they are killing for bounty money. They feel a duty to thin their numbers in the interests of environmentalism even though they have an admiration for an animal that has become part of the local culture, to the point where sports teams use mascots resembling the 20-pound, orange-fanged rodents.

The film is currently playing at the Laemmle in Los Angeles and will open at the IFC Center in New York on October 23rd. Consult http://www.rodentsofunusualsize.tv/screenings.html for screenings elsewhere.

Now playing at the IFC in New York, “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco” chronicles the life and times of a Puerto Rican artist who worked for Vogue Magazine and other glossy periodicals. I say the word artist advisedly since he was as much of a visionary as Andy Warhol who not only greatly admired Lopez’s work but began as a commercial artist just like him.

For those of you who were born after 1975 or so, the film might come as a surprise since it reveals the porousness between a milieu largely considered decadent and what veterans of the 1960s, like me, were all about.

Lopez was not political in an obvious way but he was the first to begin using African-American models who became part of his entourage, including Grace Jones. He was also the first to push the envelope in terms of how women were represented in his drawings. Instead of being stiff and mannequin-like, they were bold and defiant. Grace Jones represented that aesthetic perfectly.

Lopez was also a gay icon who like his good friends Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent were open about their sexuality. Lopez, who had the faun-like appearance of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, loved being the center of attention and was adored by men and women alike.

He died of AIDS in 1987, although the film only mentions that close to the end. Instead, it is an affirmation of a life lived to the fullest and a testament to the spirit of the time where rebelliousness was reflected in both campus sit-ins and fashion shoots for Vogue.

September 14, 2018

Icarus Film Retrospective

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Beginning tonight and lasting through the 30th, the Metrograph theater in New York will be featuring an Icarus film retrospective. Icarus is a distribution company whose leading-edge, radical films are generally not available on Amazon, iTunes or other popular streaming services. I have been covering Icarus films for close to decades now and can attest to their tremendous value as uncompromising artistic and political statements.

The Metrograph website introduces Icarus as follows:

In the summer of 1978, Ilan Ziv, fresh off his work helping to organize the first “Middle East Film Festival” in the United States, found himself in possession of a collection of little-seen films and of a passion to expose US audiences to the different points of view that they represented. Towards that end he created the distribution company Icarus Films, helmed since 1980 by Jonathan Miller. Now, forty years on, Icarus Films remains committed to the founders’ pluralistic, embracing vision of cinema, championing socially and artistically significant films that give voice to marginalized communities and express a vital, dissident version of history that’s not always written by the winners. Metrograph celebrates Icarus Films’ milestone birthday with a program of landmark films from South America, Africa, Europe, and points beyond, a program that includes crucial works by Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker, and the other epochal artists they’ve represented through the years.

Visit the Metrograph Box Office to purchase the Icarus Passport: a ticket to every program in the Icarus Films at 40 series for $50.

I am not sure when I began reviewing Icarus films but it was at least 11 years ago as this representative offering would indicate:

From my review (https://louisproyect.org/2007/05/19/six-days/):

The subtitle of “Six Days,” a documentary that opened yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York, is “June 1967: The War that Changed the Middle East.” Directed by Israeli émigré Ilan Ziv, it generally follows the formula of PBS Frontline shows or the History Channel. Striving for a neutral approach that avoids any hint of editorializing until the final 20 minutes, it concludes with a devastating look at the impact of Israel’s blitzkrieg victory in 1967–leaving no doubt about the director’s progressive intentions.

Ziv was the founder of Icarus Films in New York City, which later merged with First Run, another like-minded distribution company. Over the years I have reviewed a number of their excellent films, including most recently “The Angry Monk,” a film about Tibet that debunks the “spiritualist” hype associated with the Dalai Lama. Ziv stepped down from Icarus in 1980 in order to devote himself full-time to documentary film making. To give you a sense of where he is coming from politically, he made “Shrine Under Siege” in 1985, an attack on Jewish and Christian fundamentalist efforts to destroy the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest shrine, and to build a new Jewish temple in its place.

By June 1967, I had become radicalized by the war in Vietnam and was rethinking everything I had believed in the past, including Israel’s progressive reputation. Ziv’s film is an excellent reminder of why so many young Jews began to break with Zionism. It makes absolutely clear that despite Zionist propaganda Israel was the dominant power in the Middle East capable of reducing its neighbors to rubble.

September 8, 2018

Two new, problematic African films

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Two films opened at art houses in New York yesterday that purport to say something meaningful about African society. I am afraid that they say more about the directors and screenwriters since the message they convey is carefully tailored for Western audiences in general and the film festival/art house circuit in particular. Generally, I cut such films some slack since they are made by creative teams trying sincerely to tell stories about real social and political issues. Rather than rating them as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I simply say nothing. To paraphrase my mother, “If you can’t something nice about somebody (in this case a film), say nothing”. I dispense with my mother’s advice on this occasion since both films reflect a creative and political default on a continent undergoing permanent crisis and badly in need of a new Ousmane Sembene.

Playing at Cinema Village, “Five Fingers for Marseilles” seeks to adapt a Sergio Leone film to the hinterlands of South Africa just as his “A Fistful of Dollars” was an attempt to adapt “Yojimbo” to the Old West. Leone’s films were straightforward escapist entertainment while director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond sought to entertain as well as to comment on post-apartheid South Africa. Although the film did put Black South African actors to work, Matthews and Drummond—two white South Africans—made a film that did not come close to achieving the goal set forth by the pair in an interview with “Cinema Escapist”. As Drummond put it:

If you look at the greater theme of the movie, [Marseilles] has never been free and it takes a new generation to fix it. The liberators often hold back from true liberation, which you see here [in South Africa] with the ANC (African National Congress, the party of Mandela who have been the dominant political power in South Africa since 1994). They lost sight of what the goal was – hope for a new generation without the baggage of the past – and a lot of White South Africans feel like Honest John, in this limbo and not knowing what their place is [in Post-Apartheid South Africa].

The Marseilles referred to in the title was an actual place historically. Colonists often named settlements after cities from their country of origin and this was one of them. At the start of the film set in the apartheid era, five young people—four boys and a girl constituted as the five fingers of a fist—have begun taking target practice with slingshots to use against the cops who come to their village to extort payoffs from shopkeepers and generally bully the long-suffering Blacks. When the cops arrest the girl and begin taking her off to jail, Tau, the group’s leader, rides off on his bike to rescue her. Although it is not exactly clear how a youth on a bicycle could have pulled it off, his riding in their path manages to spook the driver so badly that he takes a sharp turn that upends the paddy wagon. Tau then wrests a gun away from one cop and kills both him and his partner. All this takes place in front of the other three boys have caught up with them. They bring the girl back to Marseilles while Tau flees to parts unknown to escape arrest.

Instead of hooking up with Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tau becomes a common thief. The only benefit of living by the sword was that it gave him the skills he needed to return to the village and go to war with the Black gang that is making life unbearable for the dwellers  led by the villainous Sepoko, the “Ghost”. Sepoko and his crew serve the same purpose in this narrative as the gangs in both Leone and Kurosawa’s films—someone to hate. Unfortunately, writer and director neglect the most important part of developing villainous characters: complexity. If they function like the mustache-twirling bad guys in 1930s Tom Mix serials, dramatic intensity will not be achieved.

Tau has returned to Marseilles not to confront evil but perhaps escape from his criminal past. Since his character is exceedingly taciturn, who knows? From the minute he hits town, he is beset by Sepoko’s goons who have plans to take over and see him as a potential obstacle. Like both “Yojimbo” and “High Noon”, the local government is spineless and corrupt–and evidently ANC. Eventually, Tau rounds up a new gang of five that has a climactic gun fight that will remind you of “Gunfight at O.K. Corral”. Matthews and Drummond are obvious film buffs that like Quentin Tarantino enjoy recycling the classics. This tendency is fairly widespread among film school graduates in both the USA and South Africa.

The saving grace of the film is the spectacular landscapes around Lady Gray, the town in the Eastern Cape where it was shot. A couple of months ago I wrote about the Eastern Cape in the context of how desperate poverty was forcing locals to poach rhinos in order to sell the horns on the Chinese black market. Now that would have been a great theme for Matthews and Drummond. I doubt that my review will ever cross their desk but for budding filmmakers who read this blog, a word of advice should be sufficient. Make films that are socially relevant and fresh.

Rungano Nyoni, the director/screenwriter of “I am not a Witch”, was born in Zambia but moved to Wales with her parents when she was 9 years old. On a visit to Zambia a few years ago, Nyoni read about how women were being accused of witchcraft just like Salem in 1693. This gave her the idea to make a film about a young girl who after wandering into a village is accused of being a witch.

This leads a local official to consign her to a kind of leper’s colony where other accused witches, all old enough to be her mother or grandmother, are forced to work in the fields of local farms as virtual slaves. Since they have been found guilty of witchcraft, they must be prevented from escaping. In keeping with the ultra-dry humor of the film, they are not held back by chains but by ribbons extending by hundreds of feet and drawn from spools on a flatbed truck.

The young girl, who is called Shula by the other accused women, is treated differently. Local officials are convinced that she can identify who is a criminal from a large group of accused men, make rain fall on a parched land by casting a spell, and generally perform supernatural feats. Her celebrity grows to the point where she is interviewed on a Zambian talk show although she refuses to talk. Throughout the film, she is totally passive while being passed from one adult to another determined to exploit her non-existent powers. I found it totally impossible to believe that a young girl would not be screaming and kicking on every occasion. Despite the title of the film, she never once cries out “I am not a witch”.

Within five minutes of Googling, I was able to ascertain that the Zambian government has set up camps for women accused of witchcraft but they exist mainly to protect them from ignorant and vengeful villagers. The nearest analogy would be battered women shelters in the USA.

Shockingly, this exploitative film has garnered a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I am about to change that. If you’re up for something like this, you can see “I am not a Witch” at the Quad and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

September 7, 2018

Operation Finale

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 7, 2018

Having seen both a documentary and narrative film about Hannah Arendt that focused on her famous (and to some, infamous) reporting on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker magazine, I was curious to see what “Operation Finale” had to say. Directed by Paul Weitz, who is best known for commercial work like “American Pie” and “The Twilight Saga”, it chronicles the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in May 1960 by a team of Mossad agents led by Peter Malkin, who is played by Oscar Isaac. Ben Kingsley co-stars as Eichmann and makes a trip to your local movie theater worthwhile. Matthew Orton’s screenplay develops the Eichmann character close enough to Arendt’s “banality of evil” to have provoked the Times of Israel to fulminate:

Having barely outlined Eichmann’s role in the genocide, the film proceeds to humanize him with the assistance of the Mossad team. Eichmann is spoon-fed like a bird, toasts a L’Chaim with Malkin, and performs calisthenics. There’s also a scene with Eichmann on the toilet bowl, during which he makes the Mossad agents laugh by telling Nazi jokes.

I doubt any actor could have done a better job than Kingsley who steals every scene, something not hard to do in a film that has not much to work with dramatically. Making a film about the abduction of Eichmann is hardly the stuff that would draw Mission Impossible fans to a theater. Even if “Operation Finale” devotes an inordinate amount of time in fleshing out the technical details in an elaborate plot to evade Argentina’s police, there is no suspense in a film that has a preordained conclusion.

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August 31, 2018

The Little Stranger

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 31, 2018

Opening at theaters nationwide today, “The Little Stranger” is a most unusual blend of class politics and Stephen King-type horror set in a shabby manor house in England called The Hundreds just after the end of WWII. Once home to wealthy aristocrats of the Ayres clan, the 18th century estate now finds itself in the mid-20th century occupied by descendants who are aristocrats in name only. For reasons never detailed in the film, they are barely scraping by economically and the dilapidated house shows it.

The matron of the house, only referred to as Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), lives there with her two grown children, Roderick (Will Poulter, who is referred to as Roddy except by those beneath him socially) and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who tries to keep the sprawling house in decent shape—a hopeless task. Once served by a staff of over a dozen, the Ayres only have Betty to serve them now, a teenager from the nearby village that is so spooked by the British version of Count Dracula’s castle that she feigns illness just so that she can get away from The Hundreds for a week or so—and maybe even permanently. Betty, you see, is convinced that The Hundreds is haunted.

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August 17, 2018

Memoir of War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 17, 2018

“Memoir of War” is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s La Douleur (The Pain, published in English as The War), a 1985 semi-fictional memoir about her experiences living in Vichy France in 1945 and during the immediate post-liberation period. Her husband Robert Antelme was a member of the Resistance and a Communist like her. With Antelme a prisoner in a slave labor camp in Germany, she tries to prevent him from being transferred to an even more lethal camp like Dachau by forming ties to a Vichy collaborator who has a double agenda: to extract information about the Resistance and to seduce her. She walks a tightrope, trying to exploit her relationship with him to keep her husband alive while avoiding a Harvey Weinstein moment.

The film is among the best I have seen about living under fascism and a reminder of how great a writer Marguerite Duras was. “Memoir of War” relies on her character’s (played brilliantly by Mélanie Thierry) voiceover drawn from the text of La Douleur. I generally find such a device intrusive but in this instance it worked perfectly since the literary text meshed so well with the cinematic texture. Setting the tone for the remainder of the film, we hear Duras’s words before the credits role as she sits alone in her apartment smoking a cigarette while pacing the floor:

I found this diary in the blue cupboards at Neaulphe. I don’t remember writing it. I know I did though. I know it was me. I recognize the handwriting and the details of what happened. I can picture the place. The Gare D’Orsay. My itineraries. But not myself writing. What I found was evenly filled pages, the letters tiny, unbelievably placid and regular. What I found was a phenomenal chaos of thought and feeling that I dare not amend, besides which literary polish strikes me as shameful. One thing is sure, obvious. It is unthinkable that these words were written whilst waiting for Robert.

Of course, the claim that she didn’t “remember writing it” has to be taken with a grain of salt. To understand why she would double-reflexively write, “I don’t remember writing it”, you have to place her in the context of French postwar culture. Now obscure to most young people except maybe those who major in French literature at your better universities, Duras was among France’s leading literary figures in the 1950s. She worked in many genres, including fiction, theater, essays, and screenwriting. In 1959, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay for “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”, an antiwar film that relies heavily on the interior monologues of the two main characters. (This classic film can be seen here.)

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August 16, 2018

The Ritchie Boys

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,WWII — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Not too long ago I discovered that Werner Angress, the historian from whose “Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921–23” I have been posting excerpts, was a Ritchie boy. After he died in 2010, The American Historical Association commemorated his life, including information on Ritchie:

Drafted into the army in 1941, he was trained as an interrogator at Camp Ritchie (he is featured in the film, The Ritchie Boys, about this remarkable institution), and parachuted (his first jump) into France with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day. Despite his extraordinarily youthful appearance and rather small stature, Angress was a tough and resourceful soldier who was eventually promoted to Master Sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

In going through a backlog of DVDs received from publicists about a decade ago, I discovered that I had one for “The Ritchie Boys”. In extracting it from the package, it accidentally was damaged. Not willing to be deterred from seeing the film, I got a copy through the Columbia Library and was richly rewarded by a documentary that might be regarded as the ultimate alternative to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”.

Although Werner Angress and all the other German and German-speaking Jewish immigrants had every reason to want to kill every Nazi they got their hands on, the allied cause was better served by them functioning as “soft cops” to get information that could save the lives of fellow soldiers as well as civilians. Additionally, the Ritchie boys discover that many if not most of the German soldiers were ordinary workers forced to kill or be killed as deserters. The same thing was true of the German civilians they came in contact with.

Every Ritchie boy interviewed in the film was as ethically and politically informed as Angress, with some demonstrating the leftist politics they probably absorbed growing up in Weimar Germany. Among the most interesting is Si Lewin, a Polish Jew who was born in 1918 and died two years ago at the age of 97. Like all the other Ritchie boys, including Angress whose parachute got caught in a tree in Germany not long after D-Day, he has an amazing story to tell.

He was assigned to convince German soldiers to surrender by speaking to them through high-powered speakers wired to a batteries in a jeep. Routinely, German artillery honed in on Lewin and his comrades by geolocating the sound of the speakers until they figured out how to position them far from the jeep.

Si Lewin’s website is still up and running. In the about page, we learn that he was a close friend of Art Spiegelman who wrote “Maus”. In a Harpers Magazine article, Spiegelman describes “Parade”, one of Lewin’s most celebrated works:

By 1950, Si was pursuing an idea that had begun to gestate while he was still a soldier. Inspired by a lifelong love of movies — and in conscious resistance to the pure nonrepresentational abstraction that was coming to dominate contemporary art — he made the Parade.

The work begins with an excited crowd of flag-waving parents and children who gather to cheer a military procession of soldiers that turns into an abstract engine of war. Little boys playing with toy guns are beckoned from the arms of their mothers into the arms of a shrouded Grim Reaper, who transforms the children into helmeted, goose-stepping cannon fodder — interchangeable cogs in a relentless war machine. A series of vignettes focuses on scenes of escalating havoc and suffering — the disasters of war — replete with bayoneted mothers and babies, terrorized families fleeing bombed-out cities, and devastated farms. The images accumulate into a panoramic harvest of blood and death. The parade turns into a hanging row of severed heads, a procession of the wounded and maimed, a march of ravaged survivors staggering under the weight of the coffins they carry.

I had to make a tough decision in writing an article about “The Ritchie Boys” since it was neither available as VOD or even as a DVD with the standard pricing. The director Christian Bauer, a German, died in 2009 and the distribution company he founded died along with him. The only way to see the film is to buy a DVD on Amazon that is now going for $70 when it was available.

I saw no alternative except to put it up on Youtube, which took a bit of time and money to accomplish. Since the DVD is copy-protected, I had to pay $100 to have someone bypass the copy protection and make it uploadable. I doubt that Youtube will be hearing from anybody about copyright protection but just in case I wouldn’t waste any time watching this film since it is absolutely terrific.

August 7, 2018

Andrzej Wajda survey

Filed under: Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

1963 photograph of Andrzej Wajda

When Andrzej Wajda died two years ago at the age of 90 after having just completed “Afterimage”, he was one of the last of the great auteurs of the 60s and 70s, leaving only Jean-Luc Godard (now 86) the sole survivor. Demonstrating their appreciation of his role in this golden age of cinema, the European Film Academy presented Wajda with a lifetime achievement award, only the third director to be so honored after Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. His body of work would be a topic in itself worthy of consideration by CounterPunch readers but beyond his achievements as a filmmaker there is something else that recommends his films, namely their focus on one of the big political questions of our epoch–especially after a full century. What was the impact of the USSR on its own people and those like the Poles living under its control? Widely recognized as an anti-Communist director, he might be a polarizing figure to many who see the geopolitical divide as demanding alignment with the Kremlin—either pre or post-Communism. As such, his work demands attention however you stand on this question insofar as his reputation and influence will persist long after his death. Was Wajda an enemy of communism or was his mission to create films that transcended narrow ideological considerations?

The films under consideration below are not only some of his most highly regarded works but ones still available through Youtube, Amazon DVDs, Fandor or Filmstruck, a new streaming service that contains the TCM and Criterion library. As I have suggested in previous CounterPunch articles about Wajda, it is worth a trial subscription to Fandor or Filmstruck if you are motivated to see some film masterpieces and even a permanent membership considering how low Netflix has sunk.

  1. The Promised Land (1974)

This film is a corrosive study of the take-off of industrial capitalism in Lodz in the late 19th century that will remind you of Bertolucci’s “1900” but without that film’s clear socialist message.

Based on Nobel Prize winning Władysław Stanisław Reymont’s 1898 novel, it is a tale about three friends seeking to enter the ranks of the bourgeoisie by starting a textile factory. Around that time, Poland was becoming a powerhouse of textile manufacturing and Lodz was like Manchester with all of its degradations as described by Engels in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. A textile mill owner himself, Engels had little in common with the three ambitious friends in “The Promised Land” who had no other interests except in enriching themselves, at the expense of friends, lovers, the working class and each other.

The film begins with Karol, the Polish son of a downwardly mobile aristocrat, Max, the German son of the owner of an antiquated handicraft textile mill, and Moritz, a wheeler-dealer Jewish investor, toasting each other with champagne in the countryside near Lodz where they plan to open their new factory. Their social origins reflect the dominant ethnic groups in Lodz at that time as well as much of Poland.

There is not a single soul depicted in Wajda’s film that has managed to escape the oppressive social relations that make Lodz look like a fetid, money-hungry swamp. One of the successful capitalists, a German ethnically, has built a mansion that is filled with furniture that makes Donald Trump’s penthouse in NY look like an Amish household by comparison. However, he does not live there. He only built it to show it off to people like Karol, who he takes on a tour.

The film speaks to a criticism of Wajda’s work that I have even heard from a Polish Marxist friend on Facebook. The anti-capitalism is not based on a belief that a new social system can take its place but on a rejection of modernity tout suite. Like the feudal socialists decried in chapter three of The Communist Manifesto, “The Promised Land” looked backwards to an idealized vision of pre-capitalist society. Marx writes:

In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.

Accustomed to Stalinist censorship, Wajda ran into new obstacles when the film was pending release in the USA. Since the Jewish businessmen in “The Promised Land” were uniformly venal, Wajda was accused of promoting anti-Semitism and the film faced considerable problems being released in the 70s. It did not ever enter the mind of its censors that every ethnic group in the film was depicted negatively.

When released, the film was hailed as an anti-capitalist masterpiece by the Polish bureaucracy and especially for its graphic depiction of the misery of factory workers. When making his own case for the film, Wajda told a French film journal:

It is this ethnic diversity that gave the society of days gone by its colorfulness, its incommensurable riches, its beauty. All these Poles, Jews, Russians, and Germans who were living together, they were creating something—ah!  This really attracts me! I found this mix of several traditions and religions fascinating, including what each of them brings in terms of nobleness and pettiness, beauty and ugliness. This is, in my opinion, what gave rise to the spiritual and economical power of a city like Lodz in 1900.

Like a Rorschach test, “The Promised Land” offers different interpretations of its intent. However you judge the inkblot, you will likely be left with the impression that it compares favorably to Bertolucci’s “1900”.

(Available on Fandor)

  1. Man of Marble (1977)

I consider this to be Wajda’s masterpiece. It tells the story of a Stakhanovite worker named Mateusz who worked as a bricklayer in Nowa Huta, which means the new steel mill, in the early years of Polish Communism. The original Stakhanov was a Soviet factory worker of the 1930s whose ability to meet breakneck speed-up conditions during the rapid industrialization of the USSR turned him into an official hero even if his fellow workers resented him for forcing them to live up to his impossible standards.

Mateusz was the subject of a documentary made by a Stalinist filmmaker on the occasion of his attempt to break a record for laying bricks in Nowa Huta. At the very end of his John Henry like feat, he picked up a final brick to put on the top level of a new building under construction only to find that it left a terrible burn on both of his hands. It was likely the result of a resentful fellow worker heating it up beforehand to punish a Polish Stakhanovite.

The long-forgotten documentary was dredged up by a young woman named Agnieszka, who was attempting to satisfy her requirements for graduating film school. Her goal was to uncover the real story of the “man of marble”, a reference to the ghastly socialist realism statues made in his honor.

That story includes Mateusz’s fall from grace. After his hands failed to recover fully from the burns, he was fortunate enough to land a job as a travelling spokesman for the Communist Party’s labor union, which unlike unions in capitalist countries was designed to enforce labor discipline. Not long after he begins going out on tour, he discovers that the secret police have arrested his best friend who worked on the bricklaying documentary alongside him. They have made him a scapegoat for the Mateusz’s burns, charging him with being a Western spy even though he fought in Spain against Franco. When Mateusz attempts to defend his friend before an audience of trade unionists, he is shouted down.

Of genuine interest is how this film was ever capable of being made in Poland. As it happens, the script for the film was written in 1962 and it only got the stamp of approval 15 years later. In 1977, Edward Gierek was the President of Poland in 1977 who had introduced liberalization “reforms” that initially led to an economic uptick but before long led to rising prices and stagnant wages that sparked Solidarity. Gierek, however, was not nearly so dictatorial as the regime of the post-WWII period that adopted repressive measures against artists as depicted in “Afterimage”. Indeed, Gierek styled himself as an intermediary between the Kremlin and the Western Eurocommunists. As we shall see in the next film review, when the Kremlin directed its supporters in Poland to crack down on Solidarity, Gierek had no other recourse except to support the USSR.

(Amazon DVD, $15.99)

  1. Man of Iron (1981)

Like “Man of Marble”, a media figure plays a key role. The film takes place against the backdrop of the rise of Solidarity, which Wajda embraced enthusiastically.

A radio journalist named Winkiel has been instructed by party bosses to prepare a damaging report on MaciekTomczyk, the son of the “man of marble” who is a leader of the shipyard workers in Gdansk (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, who also played the father in “Man of Marble”). Maciek has married Agnieszka, who he met in the final moments of “Man of Marble” when she was collecting information on his father. Both Maciek and Agnieszka have become targets of the secret police but remain unwilling to sacrifice their beliefs in freedom and economic rights for working people.

The film has a documentary-like quality with footage of Solidarity protests and Lech Walesa speaking to large crowds of workers. When the Polish government cracked down on Solidarity in 1981, the film was banned. Nominated for best foreign film that year in the Academy Awards, it was much more openly propagandistic than any other film ever made by Wajda. The Polish bureaucrats are depicted as sadistic bullies who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, even forcing Winkiel to produce a radio show that violates his own journalistic standards. If he refuses to follow their orders, they will release a report on how his drunk-driving killed a pedestrian. Throughout the film, Winkiel is shown as a hopeless alcoholic until he begins to identify with the workers struggle.

A Polish critic named Pawel Jedrzejewski wrote, “In Man of Iron reality is cold and autumnal. Security agents are dressed in leather jackets or have their hats pulled down over their eyes. The so-called decision makers and VIPs are repulsive and unrecognizable from one hundred meters away. The world is unequivocal. The appearance of normalcy, so characteristic of earlier Wajda’s films, were missing.”

Although I agree with this assessment, I encourage readers to see “Man of Iron” to get a flavor of the spirit of rebellion that pulsed through Poland in 1980. Like the Arab Spring, it was a moment of great hope that was never realized for reasons I will try to explain in a subsequent article.

(Amazon DVD, $15.99)

  1. Danton (1983)

Frequently regarded as a commentary on the Polish bureaucracy with the cold and repressive Robespierre pitted against the effusive and charismatic Danton (Gérard Depardieu in the typecasting vein?), the film had Polish actors playing Robespierre and his supporters while French actors were used for the Danton camp. Clearly, Robespierre symbolized General Jaruzelski and Danton was a stand-in for Walesa.

The main parallel was with the hardships faced by Polish workers in the late 70s as Poland’s mixture of neoliberalism and a command economy began to crash and burn. When Danton returns to Paris to confront an every-increasingly despotic Robespierre, he is embraced by crowds of workers who have been standing on a bread line.

The film is based on a 1929 play by Stanisława Przybyszewska who wrote obsessively about the French Revolution. Unlike Wajda, she was a Communist and looked upon Robespierre favorably, considering him an early opponent of capitalism.

As head of the Committee for Public Safety, Wajda’s Robespierre was determined to silence Danton and his supporters for the sake of the revolution. Fully understanding Danton’s commitment to the original goals of the revolution but seeing the need for order, Robespierre agonized over the decision to have him sent to the guillotine.

Robespierre was played by Wojciech Pszoniak, a veteran actor who also played the Jew Moritz in “The Promised Land”. His performance is outstanding. In the repression against Solidarity, Pszoniak was forced to flee Poland and take political asylum in France.

In the trial of Danton that is dramatized in the film, the prosecution refers briefly to his corruption that in the eyes of French historians, particularly of the left, might have been regarded as a kid gloves treatment. When Mitterand attended the film, he walked out apparently outraged over the representation of Robespierre. In an interview with Wajda, Marcel Ophuls seems to have understood Wajda what was driving at by asking, “Admittedly, both (heroes of the French Revolution) had a great deal of blood on their hands. But should the virtuous, the incorruptible side of Robespierre be considered as nothing more than an infirmity, a psychoanalytic quirk, to be held up to ridicule?”

In posing this question, Ophuls reflected the mainstream leftist take on Robespierre that prompted Mitterand to walk out on the film but he was also wise enough to put Wajda’s revisionism into context:

For some reason, most of us expect artists and intellectuals from Eastern Europe, who have made their reputations behind what used to be known as the iron curtain, to remain sympathetic to the ideals of revolution, no matter how disenchanted and disillusioned they might have become with revolutions in their own time and their own countries… If after thirty years of Stalinist oppression, Nomenklatura corruption, broken promises and Pravda “truths,” a man like Wajda decides to make Robespierre and Saint-Just into what some of us might consider to be caricatures, that’s his privilege.

(“Danton” is available on FilmStruck”.)

  1. Katyn (2007)

As mentioned in my previous article on Polish history, Andrzej Wajda’s father was murdered by Soviet troops in the Katyn forest in 1940. His crime was serving as an officer in the Polish cavalry, an act in and of itself considered counter-revolutionary by Stalin and worthy of a death sentence.

The film depicts a cross-section of Polish society that is affected by Soviet colonization of eastern Poland after 1939. A young Polish captain named Andrzej keeps a detailed diary of his captivity and through whose eyes we see the senselessness and brutality of the treatment of Polish officers up until their execution in the USSR that is depicted most graphically by Wajda.

Like “Man of Iron”, the film makes extensive use of footage from the period including both Soviet and Nazi spokesmen accusing each other of the mass murder. Among all the films under review here, this one is the most easily accessible on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2ZYdiEE20Y) and one that would be a challenge to any leftist in the West who instinctively condemns Poles, Ukrainians or citizens of any other country in the former Soviet bloc as counter-revolutionaries for resisting Soviet domination.

While it is undeniable that ultraright and fascist elements supported by the West gained a foothold at different times and different places, the soil for such growth was fertilized by the Stalinist rulers of the USSR who would condemn more than 20,000 Polish officers to be killed for the offense of being Polish officers or who would cause the death of more than two million Ukrainians in an ill-conceived forced collectivization.

The fact that such cruelty was carried out in the name of communism or socialism does not excuse it. Indeed, it condemns it. Unless the left begins to support a universal standard of human rights irrespective of geopolitical considerations, it will not be capable of providing the leadership for a new world order based on the abolition of class society and its replacement by one that respects each human being as having inviolable rights including the right to live securely and in dignity. Whatever Andrzej Wadja’s ideological flaws, his films are a cri de coeur for the rights of the Polish people. Viewed as untermenschen by the Nazis and the butt of racist “Polish jokes” in the 1960s, Wajda’s films are a necessary corrective as well as some of the greatest filmmaking of the past half-century.

August 4, 2018

King Cohen

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Despite having written 1,500 online film reviews since 1991, I still had no idea who Larry Cohen was–the subject of a documentary titled “King Cohen: the Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen” that opened at the Cinema Village in NY yesterday. I’d only say that the film would be appreciated most by cinephiles like me. That might include most of my readers since roughly half of what is posted here celebrates the work of obscure filmmakers like Cohen.

Although I have never seen a single film by the 77-year old Cohen, I was familiar with the TV shows based on his teleplays. He broke into television at a very early age, writing for the Kraft Television Theater in 1958, when he was only 17. Back then, there were weekly live teleplays on all the networks that were nothing like the crap shown today. Writers like Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling and blacklisted CPers using fronts turned out scripts on a regular basis that represented dramatic writing at its best.

Cohen also wrote scripts for “The Fugitive” and “Columbo”, two of my favorite shows growing up.

But his heart was in movies first and foremost. He came of age in the 1950s when NYC had movie theaters that no longer exist today. These were palaces with balconies, plush seats and ushers who would lead you to a seat with a flashlight. Most of them were on 42nd Street and offered double features. Cohen routinely went to two double features a week, which amounted to a hundred or so movies a year.

Cohen broke into the movie business as a screenwriter but soon discovered that the production companies demanded changes to his scripts that pushed the envelope of what was considered in commercially viable good taste. That led him to form his own production company so he enjoy the freedom of indie filmmakers such as John Cassavetes but without any pretensions that he was the next John Cassavetes or Orson Welles. Cohen was dedicated to making b-movies of the sort that were so popular in the late 40s and 50s, coming from studios such as RKO. Film connoisseurs appreciate how some of those RKO b-movies became regarded as artistic breakthroughs such as those that combined the talents of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur: “Cat People”, “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Body Snatcher”.

In many ways, Cohen represents the continuation of the RKO aesthetic. Among the directors interviewed in “King Cohen” who pay tribute to Cohen are Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese and J.J. Abrams. We also hear from actors and actresses who have worked with him over the years and describe working with him as a pleasure and an adventure.

Limited often to a shoestring budget, Cohen’s films that are usually based in NY are shot guerrilla-style. For example, in the 1976 “God Told Me To”, the opening scene consists of a sniper on top of water tower killing people at random on the streets below. So his actors, who are deployed on the sidewalks, fall to the ground one by one as startled New Yorkers gape at the victims with the fake blood soaking through their clothing. Instead of hiring actors and directing them to look freaked out, he gets real people to serve as proxies for the extras needed to play New Yorkers strolling by.

The film is based on the idea that a stream of characters decide to kill complete strangers because “god told them to”. One of them is a cop who while marching along with fellow officers in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade draws his gun and opens fire on them. The St. Patrick’s Day parade was real as were the cops, always recruited by Cohen for such scenes. The assassin, however, was not. It was none other than Andy Kaufman in a cameo role. He wears a shit-eating grin before he starts shooting.

The film stars Tony Lo Bianco as a cop heading up an investigation into why people with no criminal past go on such killing sprees, each confessing that god told them to do it. Lo Bianco starred in “Honeymoon Killers”, another great b-movie, made in 1970. As the investigation proceeds, Lo Bianco comes to the realization that the killings have a biblical precedence in the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

It turns out that every one of the killers has been put into motion by God after the fashion of the Manchurian Candidate. One man, who confesses to Lo Bianco that he never was religious before he killed his wife and children, now feels like a holy man.

Would Hollywood have funded such a blasphemous film? Probably not. Cohen started out pushing the envelope in a film titled “It’s Alive” that features a vicious mutant infant functioning like the monster doll in “Chucky” that sadistically kills anybody who gets in his way. Determined to make “It’s Alive” a credible work, Cohen persuaded Bernard Hermann to write the film score. In the course of working with Cohen, Hermann developed paternal feelings to Cohen who worshipped Hermann in kind.

As a cinephile himself, Cohen was always on the lookout for veteran actors and directors that he could cast in his films. He lined up acclaimed b-movie director Sam Fuller to play a Nazi hunter in “A Return to Salem’s Lot” and Broderick Crawford to play J. Edgar Hoover in “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover”. Made in 1977, the film evidently incorporates a revisionist take on FDR that departs from the hagiography surrounding the New Deal architect who has become a saint to Michael Moore, Bernie Sanders, et al. In addition, Robert Kennedy gets taken down as Bright Lights Film Journal points out:

His Hoover is no rogue or loose cannon or unscrupulous “godfather.” Rather the opposite: this Hoover rules with judgment and probity in his “crime fighting” and domestic contra operations. He is the Pope of cops. As a centrist organizer of bureaucratic rule, he opposes the episodic and subjectively motivated spying and dirty tricks perpetrated by presidents. He opposes Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of West Coast citizens of Japanese descent; the film portrays this obscenity as the reactionary land grab it was, with FDR and Earl Warren gloating over the spoils. In a later scene, he chastises Senator Joseph McCarthy as an unprincipled opportunist for his irresponsible red-baiting. Hoover fears these tactics will eventually discredit a witch hunt originally organized by Roosevelt and continued by Truman as they prepared their wars of imperial plunder and sought to eradicate any antiwar sentiment in the labor movement.

Confronted by Nixon’s demands for increased domestic spying, Hoover stonewalls. The film suggests this leads Nixon to set up his own illegal black-bag outfit, the “plumbers.” At the end of the movie, it is suggested Tolson’s release of Hoover’s “private files” to the press led to Nixon’s resignation.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover also focuses on the Justice Department turf war between Hoover and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Actor Michael Parks plays RFK as a hunched, arrogantly smiling juvenile who can ultimately do nothing against Hoover. Historically, it would be hard to imagine two government officials with more in common politically. They both cut their teeth trying to wreck the U.S. labor movement. Hoover zeroed-in on destroying its communist vanguard, while Kennedy succeeded in branding it a criminal mob enterprise permanently corrupted and ready for government receivership. (The witch hunt against communist militants, combined with Kennedy “anti-mob” crusade, saddled our unions with the leadership of finks like Teamster President Jackie Presser.)

“God Told Me To” is on Youtube with ads scattered throughout, just as if you were watching it on FX or AMC. So is “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” but without any ads. I haven’t conducted a thorough inventory but I suspect that many of Cohen’s other films are there as well. At 77 years old, he seems more interested in attracting new fans than making money. People like me, in other words.

July 27, 2018

The Prairie Trilogy

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 27, 2018

In March 2017, I reviewed Yale Strom’s documentary on Eugene V. Debs for CounterPunch, a work that looked at Red states when they were really Red. I wrote: “Indeed, the IWW and the SP reached the most oppressed members of the working class (fruit pickers, longshoremen, miners, lumberjacks) in the boondocks. Oklahoma, a state most liberals would consider particularly retrograde, was fertile territory for the radical left at the turn of the 20th century.” For those who missed Yale’s documentary at the festival last year or at its brief theater run in April of this year, the good news is that it is available now from iTunes.

And equally good news is the arrival of the Prairie Trilogy at the Metrograph Theater on Friday, July 27th. The trilogy consists of three documentaries made in 1978 by John Hanson and Rob Nilsson about the radical movement in North Dakota during the heyday of the IWW, the Socialist Party, and the Nonpartisan League (NPL). Since the radical movement in North Dakota in the early 1900s was largely made up of homesteaders, the focus is on the Nonpartisan League, a farmer’s movement motivated by the same grievances that fueled the Populist Party in the south.

Hanson and Nilsson also made a narrative film titled “Northern Lights” around the same time that depicts the formation of the NPL. It received the Caméra d’Or prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival for best first feature film and is probably worth tracking down based on the stunning Prairie Trilogy. Nilsson has his own credit for a documentary titled “What Happened Here” that can be seen on Fandor. SF Weekly described it as “little more than an intellectual crush on Leon Trotsky” so that should be recommendation enough. This is the sort of work you might expect from founding members of Cine Manifest, a collective that came together in 1972 as a political group making films instead of artists making political films. Their roots were in Karl Marx and Wilhelm Reich, and unabashedly so.

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