Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 30, 2016

East of Salinas

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 9:54 pm

Bullfrog Films is a small-scale film distribution company in rural Pennsylvania that is dedicated to works made by directors and screenwriters with a social conscience. I try to spread the word on their latest offerings since they generally have relevance to the struggle against capitalist exploitation. “East of Salinas” is a case in point. Aired originally on PBS, this fifty-three-minute documentary focuses on a family of undocumented farmworkers from Mexico who are struggling to survive against impossible odds in the town where John Steinbeck was born and where much of his fiction was set. The star of the film is a fourth grader named José who is a poster child for the intrinsic values of such people who are demonized as rapists, gangsters and drug dealers by Donald Trump. José loves school, respects his parents, and puts up with all sorts of indignities with great aplomb given his youth.

The fourth grade teacher is Oscar Ramos, who like José grew up in a family of undocumented farmworkers. From an early age Ramos had a burning ambition to be a schoolteacher. Watching him inspire and challenge a class made up of children like José is one of the film’s greatest pleasures, even if much of it leaves you with a feeling of bitterness over how poor people have to put up with terrible living conditions, job insecurity and the constant threat of la migra. These are people who work 10 to 12 hours a day chopping lettuce so that you can enjoy a nutrient-free salad with dinner, while they are often forced to survive on rice and beans dispensed by church pantries.

Director Laura Pacheco, a trained anthropologist, gave an interview to PBS that while not mentioning Donald Trump offered one of the main reasons this documentary should be shown in classrooms around the country now:

I think East of Salinas should be required viewing for every candidate! Immigration is indeed such a hot topic now – and finding a path towards citizenship for the 11 million undocumented is more important now than ever. But what we really hope is that people who see the film are able to put aside their politics for an hour and settle into Jose’s story. His hope for his future is heartwarming.

There are 2 million kids like Jose in America. They all want to contribute and make their communities a better place. America is full of opportunities and I hope after seeing East of Salinas, the door to providing these opportunities to kids like Jose will open a bit wider. I think because we’ve focused on one story and stayed away from polarizing politics, the film can be used to encourage a different conversation around immigration reform.

For rental information to institutions and individuals, go to http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/eosa.html

April 22, 2016

Hockney

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

“Hockney” opened today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and at Metrograph in New York, and at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles. It is an exquisitely beautiful documentary about one of the world’s most respected artists who was born into a working class family in Bradford, England seventy-eight years ago. He shares that background with Andy Warhol whose father was a coal miner from Pittsburgh. Like Warhol, David Hockney is gay with the major difference being a willingness to represent the male figure erotically but by no means as daring as a Robert Mapplethorpe photo.

Essentially, Hockney’s paintings are a throwback to the 19th century, concentrating on portraits and landscapes but done in a way that is distinctly modern. Whether you have never seen his work or are familiar with it like me, the film is a totally engaging museum-like tour of paintings that are a feast for the eyes. As a human being, Hockney is by no means exceptional. His life is all about his work and completely absent of the kind of drama Van Gogh or Basquiat experienced. Unlike Picasso, who he regards as his major influence, he never painted anything like “Guernica”. Even during the depths of the AIDS epidemic, his paintings were more mournful than angry. Oddly enough, his only other “social” concern has been about tobacco, a weed that he is devoted to. Early in the film, he states that he is often tempted to put up a pro-smoking billboard in health-conscious Los Angeles.

His most representative work is devoted to swimming pools in Los Angeles. Notwithstanding the seeming banality of the subject, each one transforms the material into something that becomes as sublime as Monet’s lily pads. Despite the contempt that many people hold Los Angeles in, Hockney was smitten with the city from the start. He explains that it had the aura of motion pictures that mesmerized him in his humdrum home town in the 1950s. Born in 1937, he describes himself as belonging to the “pre-TV” generation. Going to the “pictures” was a big occasion for him and his parents so the idea of being near Hollywood inspired him.

He was also drawn to the beach and surfer world like a moth to a flame. There were obvious homoerotic reasons for that as well as his fascination with the interaction of sunlight and water, something that was reflected in all of his landscapes that have the ability to render a reality more real than reality itself.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the film is Hockney’s ability to explain how he has evolved as an artist and even more importantly to communicate the spirit of his work. In one memorable moment, he muses on the famous swimming pool paintings. When you see someone standing next to a pool about to dive in, you see his or her dappled reflection in the water. The contrast between the two representations of the human form are meant to create a kind of dynamism that gives the images much more interest than their ostensibly mundane origins. Hockney is very articulate and intelligent so listening to him is an experience that no museum tour can compare to.

Despite his advanced years, Hockney remains active in his studio. Always one to borrow eclectically from the various techniques other artists have introduced, his latest work contains images captured on the IPhone and IPad. For a glimpse into his work, I strongly recommend a visit to http://www.hockneypictures.com/.

 

April 15, 2016

Green Room

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” opened at theaters everywhere today and will surely be on my best five films of 2016 when NYFCO’s awards meeting convenes in December. Saulnier was the director of “Blue Ruin”, a 2014 film that led me to nominate Saulnier as best new director that year. Like “Blue Ruin”, “Green Room” is an ultraviolent art film that puts Quentin Tarantino to shame. Like his feckless “The Hateful Eight”, Saulnier’s film takes place in a confined space, even more constricted than Tarantino’s blizzard-besieged cabin. It is the proverbial green room, a place you have probably heard mentioned on late night talk shows where a guest hangs out until it is time for them to go sit on the sofa next to Johnny or Dave or whoever.

The green room in Saulnier’s film is in the basement of a music club in rural Oregon owned by a neo-Nazi named Darcy Banker played by Patrick Stewart in an obviously outrageous bid at casting against type. I can’t say that it is entirely successful since Stewart is just a bit too familiar from Star Trek and the X-Men films. If you had never seen him before, that’s not a problem but the role would have been ideal for someone like Dennis Hopper or Michael Shannon quite frankly.

In between sets, the film’s good guys hang out waiting to be called on stage. They are members of a punk rock band called the Ain’t Rights that has seen better days. They travel around in a beat up van and often resort to siphoning gas from cars they stake out in strip mall parking lots. When the mohawked promoter who signed them up for their last gig is remorseful over the paltry proceeds, barely enough money to buy a tankful of gas and lunch at Burger King, he tries to make amends by lining them up another gig at the neo-Nazi hangout. The pay is good ($350), but he advises them not to talk politics.

Upon arrival, they are escorted to the green room by a guy who looks like a member of the type of groups Morris Dees exposes for a living. Once they settle in, they figure out that they are in enemy territory. There is a big confederate flag on the wall and Nazi regalia all around the room. Since they are punks, they are not the type to rein in their beliefs. The first number they perform once they get on stage is the Dead Kennedys anthem “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”:

Nazi punks
Nazi punks
Nazi punks fuck off

You still think Swastikas look cool
The real Nazis run your schools
Theyre coaches, businessmen and cops
In a real fourth Reich you’ll be the first to go

The audience does not quite storm the stage but probably would if such songs continued. Showing a willingness to play to the crowd, our musicians continue with less provocative material.

After the set is over, they return to the room and are shocked to see a dead woman sprawled on the floor with a knife sticking out of her skull. Standing over the dead woman is her friend and the man who likely killed her. Expecting the cops to come and sort things out, the band members stick around for the time being, a decision firmed up by a hulking member of Darcy Banker’s entourage who trains a nasty looking pistol on them, ordering them to stay put. Eventually they learn that Banker and his henchman have plans to kill them as well since they are witnesses to a crime of passion carried out by one of his gang members.

As the band members begin to figure out that they are dead meat, they lock the door and barricade it from the neo-Nazis assembling in the hallway. The rest of the film consists of action inside the green room and the club involving guns, knives, iron bars, fluorescent light fixtures, fire extinguishers, killer dogs, mike stands, and just about everything else up to the kitchen sink. As such the film is less about the clash between anarchists and reactionaries than it is about survival against overwhelming odds. Ultimately “Green Room” is much more like an episode of “The Walking Dead” but directed by Akira Kurosawa or Sam Peckinpah than a didactic bid to save the world.

Pure escapism and not to be missed.

April 14, 2016

“The Measure of a Man”; “Class Divide”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:09 pm

Two films are playing in New York theaters that go straight for the jugular vein of capitalism. One is a French narrative film titled “The Measure of a Man” that opens tomorrow at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Metrograph (a new downtown theater committed to noncommercial film). The other is “Class Divide”, a documentary about gentrification in Chelsea that opened yesterday at the IFC Center. In addition to packing a powerful anti-capitalist message, they are fine art directed by directors with outstanding track records. So they come with the highest recommendation.

The man referred to in the title of Stéphane Brizé’s narrative film is Thierry Taugourdeau, a 51-year old machine operator who has not worked in 20 months after his boss moved his factory to a third world country where labor was cheaper. In essence, Thierry is an Everyman for the world we have been living in for the past 25 years or so. He is played by veteran French actor Vincent Lindon who is the only professional in the cast. Everybody he interacts with are nonprofessionals who have the same kind of job their characters have in the film. A young and attractive female banker who advises him to sell his apartment so he can pay off debts is a real banker. A job counselor at the unemployment office who is more sympathetic to his plight but is incapable of matching him to a job that his skills qualify him for since all the manufacturing plants seem to have grown wings and flown to south Asia, Mexico or Eastern Europe is a real unemployment counselor.

The film is structured as a series of encounters between Thierry and those who enforce the rules of bourgeois society. In one scene that rips away at your guts, he has a Skype interview with the boss of a company that needs someone to work on a machine that he has had experience with but not the latest version. When asked why he hasn’t studied the procedures for the latest machine, Thierry explains that he couldn’t afford the instruction manuals. Since the boss is a millionaire, this excuse hardly matters. Why can’t everybody take the same kind of initiatives he did in becoming rich? He can’t help resist telling Thierry that his resume needs work. It doesn’t really make clear who he was—as if someone desperate to begin working again on a factory floor needs to prepare a CV geared to a management job. The interview ends with Thierry being told that there is only a slim chance of getting the job.

Like most people without income, Thierry is behind the eight ball on anything involving money. His family always looked forward to weekends at a mobile home they own in a park near the ocean but now they are forced to sell it. In another gut-wrenching scene, he and his wife show it to potential customers who try to pressure them into selling it significantly beneath the market price. For all we know, they could be real estate vultures looking to resell it at a higher price. After being told by the prospective customers one time too many that he will breathe a sigh of relief once it is off his hands, he keeps a shred of dignity intact and refuses to sell.

Stéphane Brizé has never made a political film before. His last film was a family drama about a truckdriver and his mother who have a strained relationship, one that I did not see. Nor have I ever seen any of his other films. While not being known as a writer or director of political films, he has made one for the ages. The screenplay was co-written with Olivier Gorce, whose past body of work was also relatively apolitical. Apparently, the social and economic changes taking place in France in line with those that have precipitated the Sanders campaign in the USA have reached an intensity that men like Brizé and Gorce cannot ignore.

In an interview contained in the press notes, Brizé describes his goal in making such a film:

Q: Would you call this a political film?

A: Yes. “Political” in the sense of “organization of the polis,” or city. I looked at the life of a man who gave his body, his time, and his energy, to a company for 25 years before being left on the sidelines because his bosses decide to make the same product in another country with cheaper labor. This man is not kicked out because he didn’t do his job well. He’s kicked out because some people want to make more money. Thierry is the mechanical consequence of a few invisible shareholders whose bank accounts needed a boost. He is the face of the unemployment statistics we hear about everyday in the news. They might take up two lines in the paper, but behind them are human tragedies. On the other hand, there was never any question of using tear-jerking clichés either. Thierry is a normal man – even though the idea of a normal man has taken a beating these past years – in a brutal situation: he has been unemployed for 20 months since his factory shut down, and is now obliged to accept just about any job he can get. And when this job places the individual in a morally unacceptable situation, what can he do? Stay and be an accomplice of an unfair system, or leave and return to a precarious and unstable life? That is the heart of the film. A man’s place in a system.

A while back I had a beer with a member of Socialist Alternative in which I asked some questions about how they were organized (I was interested to see how it compared to Leninist groups I was more familiar with.) One of the questions was where they had headquarters. To my astonishment they had none in Manhattan. After seeing Marc Levin’s “Class Divide”, I understand why. Chelsea, which is basically the west 20s in Manhattan, was once a home to the Brecht Forum and CISPES. Such groups would not be able to afford a closet in an office building there now. It is amazing that Monthly Review is still there on West 29th street, not far from the action in “Class Divide”. Paul Sweezy must have signed a 200-year lease. If he were still alive, I wonder what he would make of the neighborhood that in the span of about ten years has become the most expensive in the city in what can only be called hypergentrification.

The neighborhood began to change when the High Line was finished. This was an elevated railroad track that wended its way through the industrial core of the neighborhood in the days when manufacturing rather than FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) dominated the NY economy. Abandoned for decades, it was turned into a park along tenth avenue in 2009. Clustered around the High Line are ultramodern high rises that are occupied by the superrich, 40 percent of whom are oligarchs from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and all the other usual venues. The film reveals that the latest and most luxurious apartments have their own swimming pools and attached garages that allow the residents to transport their Lamborghinis up and down in elevators to and from street level. It is as if the architects had been inspired by a Scrooge McDuck comic book from the 1950s.

Nestled within this one percent of the one percent neighborhood are the residents of a housing project called the Chelsea-Elliot Houses whose residents are interviewed throughout the film on what they make of their new neighbors, particularly the Avenues private high school that cost $45,000 per year and many of whose students live in the new Chelsea luxury buildings. Ironically, the students are acutely aware of the class contradictions including a 17-year old Turkish girl named Yasemin Smallens who was inspired to create a project called 115 Steps that attempted to bridge the gap between the students and the residents of the housing project who live right across the street from the school.

The principal of the school was Chris Whittle, who is interviewed throughout the film. He was partners with Benno Schmidt Jr. in setting up something called the Edison Schools that now serves 450,000 students around the world in schools like Avenues. When he was President of Yale University, Schmidt embarked on a program to reduce the size of the faculty. In a 2002 article for CounterPunch, Carol Norris reported on Edison’s modus operandi:

Take for example the 20 poorest schools in Philadelphia that were privatized–handed over to Edison Schools Inc., because the city had no clue what else to do with them. Then the stock market fell and Edison’s shares plummeted. So big trucks came and took the kids’ textbooks, lab supplies, computers and musical instruments. Edison was hard up for cash. Rotten break for the kids. But at least, as Edison’s founder Chris Whittle so cleverly and very seriously suggested, they weren’t forced to work in the school’s offices as free child labor. (In a school of 600, he cooed, this free child labor would be equal 75 adults on salary.) So, the kids, with no school equipment, might as well go home and watch a lot of TV and dream of the day when their Social Security gets privatized.

As you might have guessed, Whittle is a walking encyclopedia of progressive sounding platitudes. With his ever-present bowtie and unctuous self-regard, he reminds me of Bard College’s Leon Botstein.

The most attractive people in “Class Divide” are the residents of Elliot House who are acutely aware of the class divide indicated in the film’s title. The most captivating of them is an 8-year old girl named Rosa who has more personality than any human being should be entitled to. In one interview, she talks about how thrilled she would be to meet Beyonce. When she asks Marc Levin which singer he’d love to meet in person, he answers (reasonably) Billie Holliday. Rosa says, “Oh, I’ve never heard of him.”

 

April 10, 2016

The films of Steven Soderbergh

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Steven Soderbergh

Perhaps no other director epitomizes the tension between art and commerce than Steven Soderbergh who retired recently after twenty-four years of filmmaking. In a widely discussed farewell address to the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival in April, Soderbergh identified some of the tendencies that had finally convinced him to retire, mostly focused on the difference between “movies” (commerce-driven) and “cinema” (art-driven). Apparently, the possibilities of making “cinema” (think in terms of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa et al) are constrained now more than ever. When Soderbergh refers to baseball below, there is a certain irony since his geeky image belies his proficiency as a baseball player when young, good enough to consider becoming a pro until he learned that he was not that good. When he took an alternative professional route, cinema was the beneficiary.

When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience I thought was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball – but with another thrown baseball. That’s why I’m spending so much time talking to you about the business and the money, because this is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies. I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird, and I can feel the thing. I can tell: It’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, “Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?” But I didn’t do that. I just sat there, and I smiled.

Those “scary” and “weird” ideas that put off audiences accustomed to the usual juvenilia can be found in “Side Effects”, his last film targeted for theatrical release (his Liberace biopic for HBO came after it.) Like most Netflix subscribers, I am always on the lookout for new releases that merit more than three stars. When I noticed that “Side Effects” garnered 4.3 stars, my interested piqued. And when I discovered that Soderbergh directed it, the deal was closed. The Soderbergh brand was a guarantee that the film was worth watching, whether or not it died at the box office.

Soderbergh told the San Francisco gathering that the marketing might have been wrong: “There was a very active decision early on to sell the movie as kind of a pure thriller and kind of disconnect it from this larger social issue of everybody taking pills.” In fact it was both a Hitchcockian thriller with overtones of “Vertigo” as well as a commentary on the widespread use of antidepressants, with each intertwined strand dramatized powerfully. One can easily imagine the late Alexander Cockburn finding much to admire in the film given his take on such substances in the April 2nd 2005 CounterPunch:

As Prozac came off Lilly’s research bench and headed for the mass production line psychiatrists labored to formulate a multitude of bogus pathologies to be installed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, whose chief editor in the 1980s was Robert Spitzer MD, an orgone box veteran and adept copywriter skilled at minting new ailments for late twentieth-century America and sanctioning treatment, medication, state funding for the requisite pills (no expensive consultative therapy) and reimbursement by insurance companies.

Rooney Mara plays a chronically depressed female patient who begins using a new medication prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law). The drugs have a side effect—some patients experience sleepwalking. When her husband arrives home at three in the morning, he spots her dicing carrots in the kitchen as if in a trance. When he tries to gently wake her from an obvious sleepwalking bout, she plunges the knife into his midsection repeatedly until he is dead.

When the media blames her psychiatrist for prescribing an insufficiently tested drug, a scandal deep enough to jeopardize his career, he launches an investigation that will remind you of Jimmy Stewart trying to get to the bottom of Kim Novak’s mysterious suicide. It is top-flight cinema from beginning to end.

With an amazing variety of genres directed by Soderbergh over the years, ranging from low budget and almost experimental films like “Bubble” to the expensive and mindlessly entertaining Danny Oceans movies designed to make money, it is a challenge to define the typical Soderbergh work. In preparing this article, I watched Soderbergh’s very first film “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” upon which his early success rested. Despite the fact that there were no mysterious homicides in the film, it shared with his latest the theme of couples failing to communicate. There are more dysfunctional couples in the Soderbergh library than any other filmmaker I can think of, excepting Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. A writing instructor at NYU once told me that there are only ten plots in all of literature (including screenplays) with, for example, the same road story found in “Huckleberry Finn” as well as “On the Road”. Soderbergh, who experienced a brutal divorce in 1994, obviously feels an affinity with the “bad marriage” story that can be found in its initial incarnation in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve as well his last film made for TV, the Liberace/Scott Thorson saga.

After “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, Soderbergh made a series of indie type films that died at the box office and left him questioning their artistic merit as well. This led to a personal and artistic crisis that focused his mind on the movie/cinema dichotomy. In his indispensable “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”, Peter Biskind reports that when Soderbergh decided to make “Out of Sight”, a film based on an Elmore Leonard novel reminiscent of Tarantino (of course, Tarantino will just as easily remind you of Elmore Leonard), it was after concluding that his indie films were too “cold” and “cerebral”. He told Biskind: “My apprenticeship is over, and if I’m going to become something other than an art house director, it’s time to step up.”

While “Out of Sight” was a box office success, it was merely a prelude to “Erin Brokovich” and “Traffic”, smash hits that catapulted Soderbergh into the Hollywood elite; he became a bankable director who was the counterpart of the actors who became part of Soderbergh’s repertory company, including George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Matt Damon.

This is probably not where Soderbergh expected to end up when he was a teenager in love with art film. In a revealing interview titled “Toward a Universal Cinema” that appeared in the September 2010 World Policy Journal, the director described his original inspirations:

I was attending this laboratory school on the Louisiana State University campus and had access to a lot of films that under ordinary circumstances I never would have been exposed to. I was hanging out with these college film students and seeing movies from all over the world, in addition to classic American films. Watching “8 1/2,” or “Blowup,” or “High and Low” at 14 and 15 is a really extraordinary experience. They imprint you in a way that’s unique, you’re such a sponge at that age.

This would explain his affinity for cinema as opposed to movies, but he was never a film snob. He explained:

I think it resulted in my work having this funny combination of both aesthetics—there’s a very American desire to entertain and to tell a story, but there’s also a very European approach to style and character that is obviously influenced by those early experiences.

One cannot be sure that story-telling is uniquely “American” when considering a film like “High and Low”, but at least we can agree that Soderbergh has successfully balanced a career in movies as well as cinema, sometimes combining the two in a work like “Traffic”, sometimes going for the uncompromising independent cinematic vision of a film like “Che”, and sometimes cooking up a fun-filled money-maker like “Oceans 11”. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Soderbergh never appeared to be competing for auteur status. For most of his career, he has simply sought to make well crafted, entertaining films of the sort that Hollywood once cranked out with regularity. With his self-effacing personality and his general aversion to venues like David Letterman’s sofa, Soderbergh is the consummate professional putting all his energy into filmmaking rather than cultivating entourages or inspiring articles in People magazine.

Biskind surmises that Soderbergh identifies with Sidney Pollack based on a remark made on a panel at the 1997 Hamptons Film Festival: “I want to know who’s gonna be the next Sidney Pollack”. Rather than reading Soderbergh’s mind, it might make sense to connect him with Richard Lester since he wrote a book titled “Getting Away With It” in 1999 that is made up primarily of interviews with the director of “A Hard Day’s Night” and many other mainstream films, such as “Superman II”.

Lester is a very witty interviewee but the book is also a must-read based on Soderbergh’s own off-kilter remarks. His introduction is both brief and hilarious:

Brief desultory discussion of forthcoming manuscript’s inception, purpose and potential audience. Self-deprecating remark. Amusing anecdote with slightly serious undertone. Awesome display of ego disguised as humility; joke about same. Transparently hollow thanks to contributors and collaborators.

There are also some priceless entries from the director’s diary:

Monday, 25 March 1996. Baton Rouge/Paris

On the plane. Hard to believe it was almost a year ago to the day we began shooting Schizopolis. Across from me is a couple that I’m assuming must be Famous, because they look the they must be Famous, I’m not sure how to explain that – it’s just an energy or something. The woman very tall and striking, and the man is taller still and sporting a short bleached-blond haircut. They are dressed in really great clothes and appear to be very much in love and I’ve decided that I hate them.

One of the benefits of making box office smashes like the Danny Ocean films is that they allow you to recycle the big bucks into cinema rather than movies. Soderbergh and Clooney formed Section Eight productions in order to fund films that the studio establishment ignored and to avoid the bullheaded cuts often required by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. They saw Section Eight as a compromise between cinema and movies. From Biskind we learn that Clooney saw it this way: “Why can’t we do the aesthetic that came from [the ‘70s]? We just try to push an indie sensibility within the Hollywood mainstream.”

One of the projects they took on was Todd Haynes’s “Far From Heaven”, a profound examination of race and class that was inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1950s “women’s films”. It starred Julianne Moore as the wife of a closeted gay executive who begins spending too much time with the handsome African-American son of their former gardener. The only problem was that Haynes had already spoken to Harvey Weinstein who assumed that he had a lock on the film.

When Weinstein learned that another studio was making the film with Soderbergh as executive producer, he phoned Haynes to bawl him out: “WHAT? YOU FUCKIN’ MADE YOUR DECISION? You fuck, you didn’t fuckin’ give me a chance to fuckin’ talk to you?”

Although Miramax was responsible for distributing “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, the Weinsteins began to view Soderbergh as a lost cause after it was followed by a string of commercial and critical flops, from “Kafka” to “Schizopolis”. When he showed up at the Miramax party after the 1997 Academy Awards on the invitation of Anthony Minghella, the director of “The English Patient” that had garnered a fistful of Oscars, he was denied entrance to the VIP section, where he spotted Minghella through a glass partition. Inside a big-screen TV played excerpts from Miramax’s biggest hits, including “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes”.

The only mystery is why Steven Soderbergh stuck around Hollywood for as long as he did. Perhaps this excerpt from his farewell speech says it best:

But before we talk about movies we should talk about art in general, if that’s possible. Given all the incredible suffering in the world I wonder, what is art for, really? If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide then really, what is it for? Shouldn’t we be spending the time and resources alleviating suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and plays and art installations? When we did Ocean’s Thirteen the casino set used $60,000 of electricity every week. How do you justify that? Do you justify that by saying, the people who could’ve had that electricity are going to watch the movie for two hours and be entertained – except they probably can’t, because they don’t have any electricity, because we used it. Then I think, what about all the resources spent on all the pieces of entertainment? What about the carbon footprint of getting me here? Then I think, why are you even thinking that way and worrying about how many miles per gallon my car gets, when we have NASCAR, and monster truck pulls on TV? So what I finally decided was, art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it.

April 2, 2016

Nanook of the North, revisited

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Introducing a screening of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece “Nanook of the North” at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York on March 3rd, 2013 Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq–there to provide musical accompaniment– warned the audience that her people were not cheerful despite the words that appear near the beginning:

The sterility of the soil and the rigor of the climate no other race could survive; yet here, utterly dependent upon animal life, which is their sole source of food, live the most cheerful people in all the world–the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.

When Flaherty began filming, the word documentary did not exist. If required to depict the Inuit in cinéma vérité fashion, the director would never have bothered since his professed goal was to show the Inuit as they lived before they became corrupted by outside civilization. This meant, for example, directing Nanook to hunt seals with a handcrafted harpoon rather than a rifle that was customary at the time.

In a 1990 documentary titled “Nanook Revisited” that does aspire to historical accuracy and that is unfortunately only available from research libraries today, the production team went to Inukjuak, the village in northern Quebec where Flaherty shot his film, to interview relatives of Nanook’s contemporaries as well as knowledgeable villagers. The manager of the local television station Moses Nowkawalk was both amused and annoyed by inaccuracies. For example, Flaherty had Nanook looking mystified by a phonograph player and taking a bite out of a record but Nowkawalk points out that the villagers had been listening to records for years. A cruder version of this scene took place in the 1980 narrative film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” with Kalahari Bushmen worshiping a Coke bottle tossed out of a airplane.

Much of “Nanook of the North” involves reenactment. For example, one of the most memorable scenes depicts Nanook building an igloo in the way it was done from time immemorial. After the job is completed, the family streams in and waits for night to descend. They tuck themselves into bed (a platform of snow covered by fur) looking as blissed out as models in a Sleepy’s mattress commercial. Since it would have been impossible to film inside the dark interior of an igloo, Flaherty instructed Nanook to create only half of one, leaving the interior exposed to light as well as bitter cold. Despite the “cheerful” look of its inhabitants, they are suffering—all for the cause of cinema.

The greatest fiction of all were the characters themselves, who understood that they were actors in a drama built on the premise that they were living the lives of their ancestors. Nanook, which means hunter in the Inuit language, was actually named Allakariallak. His two wives in the film were not really his. Instead, during the course of filming they became Flaherty’s mistresses, one giving birth to his son Josephie with whom Flaherty never made contact.

Paddy Aqiatusuk, who became a soapstone sculptor of international renown, eventually adopted Josephie Flaherty. In 1953 the Canadian government forced Paddy’s family and two other families to relocate to Ellesmere Island at the far northern reaches of Hudson Bay. Although only 87 Inuit were exiled, the cruelty and the racism matched that of the forced march of the Cherokees to Oklahoma known as the “trail of tears”.

In another documentary committed to the accurate portrayal of Inuit life titled “Martha of the North” (available on streaming from the National Film Board of Canada for $2.95), we learn about the suffering of those Inuit families. The Martha of the title is Josephie’s daughter and the main subject of the film. She is visiting Ellesmere Island for the first time since her childhood exile. After Martha Flaherty reached adulthood, she became one of the Inuit nation’s leading activists for human rights. One can understand the passion of her commitment given the terrible injustices she faced as a child.

The Canadian government, and more particularly the Royal Mounties who supervised the relocation, had a reductionist view of Inuit life. Since the natives were accustomed to frigid conditions and to hunting, why would they object to being moved further north?

For a companion guide to “Martha of the North”, it is difficult to imagine anything more sensitively written and well-researched than Melanie McGrath’s 2006 “The Long Exile”. Here she describes the initial reaction of Paddy and other Inuit to their new surroundings:

And so the days passed and after the second or third week of patchy hunting and endless trips into the mountains for ice and heather, Paddy Aqiatusuk, as camp leader, came to the conclusion that the Lindstrom Peninsula was unsurvivable. He had serious misgivings about the camp’s ability even to survive the winter unless they were moved. The shale beach was too narrow and steep and the sheer cliffs behind made it impossible to watch for caribou or polar bears. There was no proper water source and insufficient heather or plant material for fuel.

Growing more and more miserable with conditions on Ellesmere Island, Paddy convinced his stepson Josephie to join him in the far north. While Josephie was happy to be reunited with Paddy, he was appalled by conditions that forced him and his family to take desperate measures. With food in short supply, the Inuit families began to take long treks on a daily basis to find quarry. On one such trip, the two young sons of Thomasie Amagoalik fell through thin ice and drowned. Meanwhile Josephie brought his young daughter Martha with him on polar bear hunts, as she recounts in the documentary. It was a miracle that she managed to survive such ordeals. When game was not available, the Inuit had no other choice but to dig through the garbage dump of the Royal Mounties looking for scraps just like homeless people. In a very real sense, they were homeless.

If the “trail of tears” was a nation-building exercise on the part of the young and imperial-minded American neighbor to its south, Canada had similar ambitions. In 1953 the Arctic was a contested region with various great powers seeking to control as much territory as possible in the hope that precious resources were in the offing. In the forced settlement of Inuit families to the far north, the Canadian government hoped to establish a legal territorial claim through facts on the ground. This race is ongoing. In September 2012, a Russian submarine lowered a “holy memory capsule” blessed by an Archbishop into the water near the North Pole in a similar bid.

The “scramble for the Arctic” was a typical colonizing project. In “Nanook and His Contemporaries: Imagining Eskimos in American Culture, 1897-1922” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2000), Shari Huhndorf cites an article by Admiral Peary published in the December 1903 National Geographic:

As a matter of prestige [gaining the Pole] is worth while….

As a matter of patriotism based upon the obligations of our manifest destiny, it is worth while. The North American world segment is our home, our birthright, our destiny. The boundaries of that segment are the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Isthmus and the Pole…. Believe me, the winning of the North Pole will be one of the great milestones of history, like the discovery of the New World by Columbus and the conquest of the Old by Alexander…

Let us attain it, then. It is our privilege and our duty. Let us capture the prize and win the race which the nations of the civilized world have been struggling for for nearly four centuries, the prize which is the last great geographical prize the earth has to offer… What a splendid feat for this great and wealthy country if, having girdled the earth, we might reach the north and south and plant “Old Glory” on each Pole. How the imagination stirs at the thought!

Robert J. Flaherty, an Irishman, came to Canada in the same spirit. Before he became a filmmaker, he worked for a mining company surveying the land for marketable resources. In the course of his travels, he became infatuated with the Inuit and then decided to make a film about them. Combining art and commerce, he received funding from the Revillon Frères fur company in the same way that a documentary about the Olympics might get financial backing from Nike today.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was fascination with the Inuit who were considered unspoiled by an industrial society that was becoming less free even as it was capable of producing consumer goods by the truckload. The Inuit were seen as “noble savages” who were not only capable of living off the grid but being “cheerful” all the while. But in reality they were integrated into capitalist property relations just as most native peoples of Canada were. Companies like Revillon Frères relied heavily on the Inuit or the Blackfoot Indians to hunt and trap beaver and fox for the European luxury market. During the Great Depression, the price of fox pelts declined drastically, throwing the Inuit into economic ruin.

For people like Robert Flaherty, there was a tendency to view the Inuit as they used to be rather than as they were. While he was much more respectful toward them than Admiral Peary who regarded them as childish and backward (even as he relied on them to survive in the far north), he could not accept them on their own terms.

If Flaherty was a product of his age, the same can be said of the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, from whom a more enlightened attitude might be expected. Despite his professed objection to racism, Boas paid Admiral Peary to bring some “specimens” back to New York where they could be studied at the Museum of Natural History. Like Napoleon Chagnon’s Yanomami, the Inuit were supposedly a people who were a throwback to the stone ages even though they were accustomed to trading furs in exchange for steel knives and rifles. When the Inuit began dying from diseases for which they had no resistance, a survivor demanded that his father’s bones be returned to their homeland. Boas could not be bothered, telling a reporter “the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.”

Is it any wonder why Tanya Tagaq did not feel cheerful?

As part of a worldwide resistance to white domination, native peoples have been fighting for their rights everywhere in the world, including the Inuit. Among their greatest grievances was the exile to Ellesmere Island. In 1987 the Inuit filed a claim against the Canadian government seeking $10 million in damages and an apology. After stonewalling for over a decade, the government acceded to all the Inuit demands. On August 18, 2010 the Minister of Indian Affairs wrote:

We would like to express our deepest sorrow for the extreme hardship and suffering caused by the relocation.  The families were separated from their home communities and extended families by more than a thousand kilometres.  They were not provided with adequate shelter and supplies.  They were not properly informed of how far away and how different from Inukjuak their new homes would be, and they were not aware that they would be separated into two communities once they arrived in the High Arctic.  Moreover, the Government failed to act on its promise to return anyone that did not wish to stay in the High Arctic to their old homes.

Of even greater significance was the creation of the province of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This new Canadian province that included Ellesmere Island was to be the homeland of the Inuit people with their language enjoying the same status as English. Not long after Nunavut came into existence, a staff member of Nunavut Arctic College showed up on the Marxism mailing list I moderate. As someone sympathetic to indigenous struggles, I welcomed him eagerly. He identified the issues that confronted the Inuit historically in a post to the list:

The Hudson Bay Company from the UK was concerned with furs and instant wealth.  The original banalities of the original investors (aristocracy) couldn’t see the usefulness of Canada as a land, what they wanted was trading posts to supply the wealth from the north. The different clergy came along too, hanging on the coat-tails of mighty in order to establish their own bridgehead. There have been many stories told of sexual abuse of aboriginal kids who were forced away to residential schools by the clergy. They were forbidden to use their own languages and mistreated in different ways.

As a symbol of Inuit self-determination, Nunavut is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of a nation seeking to define its own culture and economic destiny. Although it was not intended to be a corrective to “Nanook of the North”, the 2001 narrative film “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (available from Amazon for a used DVD at around $6) was the first ever to be made by the Inuit. It is based on a tale handed down through generations via oral traditions. The screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who died in 1998 before the film was completed, gave an interview to Nancy Wachowich, a Scottish professor. In response to her question about whether the film will be different from others made about the Inuit, he replied:

There are a number of differences between what we are doing and other movies that have been produced regarding our Inuit culture. This movie will be based on an Inuit legend, and also it is all going to be in Inuktitut. And also, all of the actors will have to be Inuk. No Japanese or whoever else who pretend to be Inuit. You know. It will be done the Inuit way. We want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life. That is what we are going to do.

It will be done the Inuit way. That would be the best way to bring the Nanook saga to a just conclusion.

March 30, 2016

Salero; Vita Activa

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Scheduled for screening at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, N.C. between April 7-10 and the San Francisco Film Festival on April 30 through May 3rd, Mike Plunkett’s “Salero” is a documentary about one of the last saleros in Bolivia, men who harvest salt from the vast plateau Salar de Uyuni—underneath which lies the gargantuan lithium deposits that some describe as having the possibility of turning Bolivia into a kind of Saudi Arabia based on the sale of a mineral needed for batteries and other industrial uses.

The salero is one Moises Chambri Yucra, a Quechean Indian in his thirties who lives with his wife and two young sons in a tiny village called Colchani in fairly primitive conditions and on the edge of poverty, largely as a result of a declining demand for the home-grown table salt he peddles to vendors in Uyuni, a small city that is the hub of the burgeoning lithium mining industry.

Equipped with nothing but a pick-ax and shovel, he drives each day to the salt flats and gathers the mineral into piles, which are then loaded into the back of his truck and transported back to his village to be ground down for table use. When the film begins, you hear Moises musing over the first moon landing in 1969, recounting the sense of awe that overcame Neil Armstrong. As you see the snow-white sea of salt surrounded by mountains beneath Moises’s feet, you will feel the same kind of awe. This is an utterly remote region of Bolivia whose citizens are peripheral to the economic and political life of the country but in whose name Evo Morales has governed—up until recently.

Cinematically, the film is utterly stunning. Every landscape shot of the salt flats can take your breath away, especially when you hear Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie’s film score in the background. His music has the ambient quality of Brian Eno or Phillip Glass but with much more drama. It is the perfect aural accompaniment for a natural world that is unlike anything you have seen in a film before. If “Salero” consisted of nothing but such images and Wiltzie’s music, it would still be worth seeing just like Phillip Glass’s “Koyaanisqatsi”.

But is more than that. It is a portrait of assimilation, though one not like the kind that the conquistadores forced on Bolivia Indians in the 16th century onwards but one that is market-driven. Moises is a man with a keen idea of indigenous struggles in his country, including the role of Potosi in supplying the silver that would make Europe wealthy. He wonders if the lithium jackpot will be part of Bolivia’s ongoing agony even if his president promises that it will relieve his peoples’ poverty.

The film shows Evo Morales arriving in Uyuni to much fanfare and giving speeches about how lithium will benefit the people. Moises remains skeptical. He doesn’t like Uyuni or any other city for that matter since they are about nothing but money. His pleasure comes from his family, especially teaching his young sons Quechean songs that they sing to his delight in their own language.

I strongly recommend the film to people in the Durham and San Francisco area. It is an extraordinary work that has a powerful social message combined with fine art. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Opening at the Film Forum in NY on April 6th, “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” is an absorbing portrait of the philosopher best known for the controversy sparked by her New Yorker Magazine coverage of the 1961 Adolph Eichmann trial that contained the words that would condemn her in the eyes of many Jews, liberals and Israeli politicians: “the banality of evil”.

The film gives extensive coverage to her views on this matter that interviewee Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College and a former student of Arendt’s, were distorted all out of proportion. Since Botstein is an ardent Zionist, this is quite a statement. I was particularly interested in the film since I had a connection not only to Botstein (as a gadfly over the years) but also to her close friend Hans Jonas, who I studied philosophy with at the New School in 1965-1967. Unlike his fellow Zionist Botstein, Jonas emerges as one of the unforgiving in an interview. Although he is not seen in film footage, Heinrich Blucher—Arendt’s husband from the late 30s until his death in 1970—figures prominently in the film largely through the recitation of his love letters to her and hers to him. I studied with Blucher at Bard College in the early 60s and consider him a major influence on my intellectual development. Blucher was a member of the German Communist Party and a veteran of street battles with the Nazis during the Weimar Republic. He eventually became disillusioned with Marxism (or at least the bogus version he identified with) and became part of the circle around Karl Jaspers that included Arendt and Jonas. The film includes recitations of the correspondence between Jaspers and Arendt that are mostly focused on philosophy and politics, as well as that between Heidegger and Arendt that are only about their controversial love affair. A number of the interviewees consider her willingness to forgive Heidegger after WWII a serious error in judgment.

The core of the film deals with her analysis of Nazism within the context of her philosophical stance against “ideology” and “idealism”. She blames them for the rise of both Nazism and Communism (ie. Stalinism):

Ideologies—isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise—are a very recent phenomenon and, for many decades, this played a negligible role in political life. Only with the wisdom of hindsight can we discover in them certain elements which have made them so disturbingly useful for totalitarian rule. Not before Hitler and Stalin were the great political potentialities of the ideologies discovered.

I am not surprised that the film stepped around some of Arendt’s key philosophical precepts, including this one. Although it is a dramatic story covering all the bases—her affair with Heidegger, the Eichmann trial, her disillusionment with Zionism—there is not much in the way of intellectual engagement in an otherwise stimulating documentary.

After graduating Bard College, it took me two years to get past the same kind of analysis about the perils of ideology I got from her husband. I obviously needed to dump existentialism and liberalism to become a revolutionary socialist. (I doubt anything can shake me from my Marxist beliefs at this point since the NY Times reminds me of the horrors of capitalism every morning.) In 1961 Blucher asked me to prepare a report on the Communist Manifesto, expecting me to echo the kind of liberal anti-Communism that was fashionable at the time. Not just from Arendt but Albert Camus and Daniel Bell as well. But the whole idea of Marxism was so remote from my intellectual universe that I could not begin to make sense of the Manifesto.

The film was directed by Ada Ushpiz, an Israeli filmmaker who has written for Ha’aretz. She obviously has an affinity with Arendt’s anti-Zionism as illustrated by her last film “Good Garbage” that identifies with poor Palestinians recycling junk tossed out by Israeli settlers in Hebron. From the Ha’aretz review:

The impoverished village was hit hard by unemployment. In the film we see and hear what Ushpiz, the narrator, calls the “third generation of the occupation”: a generation that has lost faith in the prospect of ever leading a free life. In the middle of shooting, officials from the Hebron municipality, accompanied by representatives of the World Bank, show up with a plan to turn the dump into a garbage-recycling site. In that way they would “save” the children. The film documents the World Bank’s Good Samaritan attempt to end a bad situation and found a cooperative. The film’s creators trace the collapse of this attempt.

I imagine that if Hannah Arendt were still alive, she would be proud of both films.

(For a more extensive analysis of Hannah Arendt’s ideas, here is something I wrote prompted by the Margerethe Von Trotta biopic: https://louisproyect.org/2014/02/01/the-hannah-arendt-industry/)

March 25, 2016

Re-imagining Miles Davis and Chet Baker

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:10 pm

Just by coincidence apparently, two narrative films open this week in theaters everywhere about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, trumpet players that were noted for their “cool” style and debilitating drug habits. They both can be described as attempts to “re-imagine” the musicians, a choice made by screenwriters and directors to avoid being confined by biopic conventions. Indeed, the term “biofic” might be coined to describe this genre since it blends fact and fiction, often at the expense of both art and the artist whose lives they seek to make more “dramatic”.

Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” is a total disaster. It is based on the premise that he bonded with a white Rolling Stone reporter who had come to his upper west side townhouse in the late 70s when the jazz legend had retired from the music scene and into a self-imposed cocaine haze. At first you are impressed with Cheadle’s ability to mimic his chronic hoarseness and glowering manner but it shortly becomes tiresome since it is a poor substitute for character development. There is a bit of mystery about why Davis stopped playing but it is obviously beyond the ability of Cheadle to offer some insights into why this happened.

It has been many years since I read Ian Carr’s “Miles Davis: the definitive biography” (a rather overweening title but accurate nonetheless). As I recall the section that dealt with his cocaine addiction and hermit-like existence on the upper west side is deeply compelling. Carr attributed the departure to a combination of sheer exhaustion from performing over a thirty-year period, physical ailments, and a paranoid tendency that made him want to avoid social contact. Once the cocaine habit kicked in, these tendencies were accentuated to the point of making it very difficult to break out of his shell.

Cheadle made an utterly inexplicable artistic decision to turn what could have been a powerful human drama into something resembling a Miami Vice episode. After Davis and the reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) show up at the head of Columbia records to wrangle over a tape that might serve as his return to recording and performing, it is purloined by a shady white executive and guarded by his gun-toting Black bodyguard. This leads to a series of confrontations involving car chases and gun battles that turn the jazz legend into a character out of a gangsta rap-inspired movie like “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”. In depicting the Rolling Stone reporter and Miles Davis as Black and white “buddies” taking on bad guys, it has the same kind of vibe as “Miami Vice”, “I Spy” or “48 Hours” but without the electricity. The film not only fails to deliver on Miles Davis the man but on the pop culture ambitions that Cheadle mistakenly took on.

In an interview with Rolling Stone (naturally), Cheadle explained what he was attempting:

Then, almost as an afterthought, I said, “I think we’ve got to make a movie about this dude as a gangster” — ’cause that’s how I feel about Miles Davis. He’s a G. All those apocryphal stories about how bold and dynamic he was, the gangster shit he’d do … you could fit all that into a biopic, I guess. But I just thought, let’s do a movie that Miles Davis would say, ‘I want to be the star of that movie. Not the one about me. The one where I’m the fucker running it, and I tell everybody what happens.’

I had high hopes for this film based on a snippet that appeared on YouTube early on. It showed Davis performing a number from “Porgy and Bess” backed by Gil Evans and a full orchestra, petty much a recreation of a YouTube video that depicted the original performance.

In my fondest imagination, I saw the next scene with Gil Evans and Miles Davis sitting over dinner discussing racism or their love lives. Foolish me.

While I can recommend Robert Budreau’s “Born to Be Blue” as a serviceable drama starring Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker, it too takes liberties with the musician’s life in order to frame the story around a familiar plot that ostensibly catered to the audience’s expectations, namely a troubled romance between the musician and a Black actress named Jane who is entirely made up.

Not only was she a fiction, she was also supposedly playing Baker’s first wife in a biopic film within the film—an African-American as well. In fact, none of Baker’s wives were Black and the only purpose in introducing such a character was to serve as a peg in the plot development. When Baker meets her parents, they look askance at the musician who—like Davis—is temporarily out of the business. Not only is a longtime junky, he is second-rate compared to Davis in the opinion of Jane’s dad.

In an earlier scene, when Baker meets Miles Davis at a club in Los Angeles in the early 50s when Baker was voted over Davis in a Downbeat poll as musician of the year, Davis contemptuously tells him that he was “the great white hope”.

Besides Chet Baker and Jane, the other major character is Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), the founder of Pacific Jazz records, the label that marketed the so-called West Coast style and where Baker was once a major figure until heroin sank him into oblivion, deepened by a beating Baker suffered on the streets of New York that left him without his front teeth.

For most men in the music business, including club owners, agents and other musicians, Baker had become untouchable. In a poignant scene, Baker shows up at Bock’s elegant home in Los Angeles to plead for a second chance. After Bock turns him away, Baker picks up a potted plant with the intention (we assume) of tossing it at the front door. Catching him approaching the door, Bock intercedes and decides to give him a second chance. Like all other films about musicians with a drug habit redeeming themselves such as those about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, “Born to Be Blue” moves along a fairly predictable but likeable story of overcoming the odds.

Unlike the Miles Davis story, I had little knowledge about Baker’s life except the bare essentials. To give me a perspective on “Born to Be Blue”, I saw the highly regarded 1988 Bruce Weber documentary “Let’s Get Lost” (99 cents on Amazon streaming).

Made a year before his death, the result of falling from a second story window in an Amsterdam hotel (an apparent suicide), Baker is the epitome of the ravages left by a lifetime of heroin addiction. With his scabrous features and half-closed eyes, speaking barely above a whisper, Baker appears more dead than alive. Weber obviously found this “late” Chet Baker as photogenic after a fashion, just as he and other photographers had found the young Baker an irresistible Adonis.

In the early 50s, Baker was a combination of James Dean and an idealized version of a jazz musician that many young people were attracted to like moths to a flame, especially the women that Baker collected, exploited and then abandoned like a used condom.

They are interviewed in the film and in many ways are far more interesting than Baker, including the singer Ruth Young who had Baker pegged as a loser even though she found him irresistible. She is funny, smart and articulate—full of life as opposed to the walking dead Chet Baker. Her appraisal of Baker is consistent with the one made in “Born to Be Blue” but if your only knowledge of the trumpeter is based on these two films made by obvious fans, you don’t know the half of it.

In a two-part article (part one, part two) on Chet Baker for CounterPunch based on a 440-page biography by James Gavin, Jeff St. Clair reveals someone much more like Mr. Hyde than the Dr. Jekyll of the two films.

Baker was a beater. He would berate and slap and punch his wives and girlfriends, often in public. His wife Carol was repeatedly seen sporting a pair of black eyes. He tried to strangle his longtime girlfriend Ruth Young with a telephone cord and later broke into her apartment, looted the place and sold her grand piano to pay for drugs.

There is only a fleeting reference to Baker’s violence in the documentary, and none in the biopic. The directors obviously preferred to create an image of a man more preyed upon than a predator. “Re-imagining” Chet Baker might be more accurately described as sanitizing him.

He had it in for gays as well as women:

In keeping with his other prejudices, Baker was something of a homophobe and his growing mystique in the gay community of LA and San Francisco unnerved him. He was determined to set the record straight. “There was a very mixed reaction when I started singing,” Baker said. “In the first place, a lot people thought – foolishly so – that because of the way I sang I, y’know, liked fellars or something. I can only say that that’s a lot of bullshit.”

Not only that, he seemed to be the sort of person who would vote for Donald Trump:

Years later Baker came to resent Davis and other black musicians. He deprecated Davis’ revolutionary second Quintet and his excursions into fusion. “They aren’t even songs,” Baker fumed. He couldn’t play the music and didn’t understand it. Chet was also an early proponent of the notion of reverse discrimination. He believed that music critics didn’t take white musicians seriously and that he was being denied gigs and record deals because he was white.

Superficially alike as practitioners of a post-bebop “cool” style in the mid-50s, there were major differences between Davis and Baker both in terms of conception and execution. This is dramatized in their respective performances of “My Funny Valentine”, a tune that both musicians were identified with.

Without going into too many details, Miles Davis’s performance has a burning intensity while Baker’s is merely “pretty” by comparison. Ultimately, Miles Davis’s jazz is rooted in the blues tradition and can even be seen as a variation on Louis Armstrong with its bent notes and highly developed syncopation. Despite the fact that he preferred ballads as did Baker, there was always a feeling that the the slow tempo was much more akin to lava flowing down the side of a volcano than Tin Pan Alley.

I remember the day I became a Miles Davis fan. It was the summer of 1961 and I was sitting in a pizza parlor on Friday night when someone played “Summertime” on the jukebox, a tune off of Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” album. My jaw dropped. What was that?

During my four years at Bard College, nobody ever played Chet Baker records in the dorm. The West Coast style was not exactly calculated to win the allegiance of aspiring beatniks. Indeed, as one interviewee in the Weber documentary put it, Baker’s sound was as rooted in the Los Angeles zeitgeist as the Beach Boys. Sunshine, girls and convertibles. And, just as was the case with Brian Wilson, it had nothing to do with Baker’s dark soul.

After graduating Bard, I gravitated to the New Thing in jazz, an avant-garde movement that bypassed Miles Davis and eventually became closely associated with the Black nationalist movement especially through the efforts of Archie Shepp who in many ways was simply extending the vision of predecessors like Max Roach and Art Blakey Jr.

Later on, as the New Thing faded (as did the Black nationalist movement that inspired it), I began to give West Coast jazz a hearing. Although this style is obviously associated with white musicians like Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, it is wrong to assume that there was some kind of Chinese Great Wall that separated them. Keep in mind that the great Art Pepper, who made an echt West Coast record titled “Art Pepper + Eleven” led by Marty Paich, a West Coast figure of some stature, he also recorded with Miles Davis’s rhythm section in 1957 (Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones). If you heard this record without knowing the principals, you’d likely assume that Pepper was Black.

Also keep in mind that Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaborated on the “Birth of the Cool” record made in 1950 but that was first released in 1957. Two of the lead soloists besides Davis were associated with the burgeoning West Coast style: Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan.

My idea of a jazz film, either narrative or documentary, would explore how styles came into existence. For me, the development of a record like “Birth of the Cool” was far more dramatic than Miles Davis’s cocaine habit. Indeed, the most interesting moment in the Weber documentary involves the origins of the Mulligan/Baker pianoless quartet. It turns out that the two musicians were booked at the Haig, a small LA club, in 1952. When they arrived, they discovered that the piano had been removed from the stage since vibraphonist Red Norvo’s trio (an amazing group with Charlie Mingus on bass and Tal Farlow on guitar) had no need of the grand piano that had been brought in for an earlier engagement by Errol Garner. Once it had been stowed away in the cellar, Mulligan and Baker decided not to bother with a pianist. The result was considered one of the great moments in jazz and an indication of what Baker could have become if he hadn’t gotten hooked on heroin.

March 22, 2016

We Like It Like That

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Although I confess to not having been a fan of boogaloo, a hybrid of Latin and soul music that was popular in the late 60s, I absolutely adored “We Like It Like That”, a new documentary that is available now on ITunes and VOD.

Director Matthew Ramirez Warren, who has written for the NY Times and NBC, began work on the film in 2010. The six years he devoted to making “We Like It Like That” were well-spent since it is a tour de force of musicology and social history, topped off by captivating interviews with musicians who played in this style. A year after the project started, Warren gave an interview to Rubber City Review where he explained how he got turned on to the music:

Unfortunately, I missed the boogaloo craze by quite a few years, I am 29 years old. Though I was exposed to Latin music growing up, I didn’t really discover boogaloo till about 10 years ago when I started DJing and collecting records. I would find these boogaloo records in used record stores and flea markets and they just blew my mind because they were so New York. I wanted to know more about them.

Boogaloo is essentially a hybrid of Afro-Cuban and soul music that frequently used English instead of Spanish lyrics. The title of the film is an adaptation of one of the monster hits “I Like It Like That”, which was written for the Pete Rodriguez band in 1967. Rodriguez, along with Joe Bataan, Johnny Colon, and other practitioners of the style now mostly in their seventies, is interviewed about how he began performing in the style. In each interview, the musicians go into considerable detail about how the harmony and rhythm departed from Latin music tradition, as well as singing or playing instruments to illustrate their points. It is the Latin music equivalent to listening to a Leonard Bernstein lecture on Mozart.

In the mid-60s Puerto Rican youth had lost interest in the music their parents danced to. Instead of playing Tito Puente, Machito or Tito Rodriguez records, they were into Motown or rock and roll. This reminded me of the time when I was good friends of a young programmer who had come to the USA from Cuba with his father, who had been a sergeant in Batista’s army. When we used to have lunch together when we were consultants at Nynex in the 1980s, we agreed to disagree on politics. Years later when he switched his major from computer science to anthropology at CCNY, he changed his mind considerably about Cuba under the impact of professors who, as he put it, were saying the same things as me.

We also disagreed about music but not so intensely. He was a fan of Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and INXS, as were most of his friends in Washington Heights who were all Latinos like him. At the time I was passionate about Afro-Cuban music and had amassed a considerable collection of records on the Egrem label, a Cuban company that had somehow managed to find a distributor in Queens. When he came over to hang out, I began to play Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros for him. He became hooked and started buying Egrem records himself. One day he told me that when his father heard a Benny Moré being played on his stereo, he came in with a big smile on his face. That, he said, was the band that he and his wife used to dance to at outdoor concerts.

Afro-Cuban music has had an ability to influence other styles over the decades as well as to be influenced as well. Much of modern African popular music has been influenced by Afro-Cuban music, the result of sailors on cargo ships playing their records in cities like Brazzaville and Dakar when they were on shore leave. Meanwhile, jazz and other styles have influenced salsa. If you’ve ever heard Eddie Palmieri, you’ll be struck by his obvious debt to McCoy Tyner.

Boogaloo was above all the style that echoed the culture of East Harlem, a neighborhood just ten blocks north of me. As Johnny Colon and other boogaloo veterans stroll along its streets, they convey the spirit of the times when Puerto Rican youth embraced a type of music that their parents might have hated. As one musician puts it, that is the key to any music’s success among teens. If your parents hated it, you loved it whether it was Elvis Presley or Joe Cuba.

Boogaloo became so pervasive that more traditional musicians were compelled by the marketplace to make boogaloo records, including Eddie Palmieri, arguably the greatest Latin musician who ever lived, and Larry Harlow—a Jew who grew up adoring Afro-Cuban music, so much so that he lived in Cuba for two years studying under the masters. He, like Palmieri, did not care for the music, but despite that made records that some consider boogaloo masterpieces.

Toward the end of the film, we see Johnny Colon and Joe Bataan performing before adoring crowds in Central Park. Evidently, boogaloo is making a comeback largely as a result of young DJ’s playing classic records in trendy nightclubs. I doubt that I will be buying any of the new CD’s made by young musicians carrying on in this tradition but I totally recommend “We Like It Like That”, a film that celebrates the genre and gives it is proper due.

March 19, 2016

Is Kathryn Bigelow our Leni Riefenstahl?

Filed under: Fascism,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 2:37 pm

Leni Riefenstahl

Kathryn Bigelow

As a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) for over a decade I was not surprised to see Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” named best movie of 2012 since the group had picked “Hurt Locker” as the best for 2009. Among the 36 members there were only two who had problems with this choice–Prairie Miller, a WBAI Arts Magazine host, and me.

Perhaps feeling a bit of peer pressure, I emailed my colleagues: “I actually had no problem voting for this movie in one category or another. Katherine Bigelow is our Leni Riefenstahl, after all.” (I did not bother to explain that my vote might have been for cinematography or film score, but certainly not for screenplay, direction, or best picture.) After Prairie told me that she was surprised by my comment, I began to grapple with the question of reactionary filmmaking, all the more so after reading a passage in Glenn Greenwald’s brilliant take-down of the film:

Ultimately, I really want to know whether the critics who defend this film on the grounds of “art” really believe the principles they are espousing. I raised the Leni Reifenstahl [sic] debate in my first piece not to compare Zero Dark Thirty to Triumph of the Will – or to compare Bigelow to the German director – but because this is the debate that has long been at the heart of the controversy over her career.

Do the defenders of this film believe Riefenstahl has also gotten a bad rap on the ground that she was making art, and political objections (ie, her films glorified Nazism) thus have no place in discussions of her films? I’ve actually always been ambivalent about that debate because, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Riefenstahl’s films only depicted real events and did not rely on fabrications.

But I always perceived myself in the minority on that question due to that ambivalence. It always seemed to me there was a consensus in the west that Riefenstahl was culpable and her defense of “I was just an artist” unacceptable.

Do defenders of Zero Dark Thirty view Riefenstahl critics as overly ideological heathens who demand that art adhere to their ideology? If the KKK next year produces a superbly executed film devoted to touting the virtues of white supremacy, would it be wrong to object if it wins the Best Picture Oscar on the ground that it promotes repellent ideas?

Before addressing comparisons between Bigelow and Riefenstahl, it would be useful to consider the KKK question. I am willing to bet that Greenwald had D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in mind since that pretty much describes how it is viewed nowadays: an apologia for the night riders. In a Counterpunch article devoted to the Oliver Stone/Peter Kuznick “Untold History” series on Showtime, I mentioned that “Birth of a Nation” was shown in the White House in much the same way as the Obama-friendly films like “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark Thirty” might be shown today:

Wilson even screened D. W. Griffith’s pioneering though notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915 for cabinet members and their families. In the film, a heroic Ku Klux Klan gallops in just in time to save white southerners, especially helpless women, from the clutches of brutish, lascivious freedmen and their corrupt white allies—a perverse view of history that was then being promulgated in less extreme terms by William Dunning and his students at Columbia University. Upon viewing the film, Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with Lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

In grappling with the problem of reactionary but breakthrough filmmaking, I checked the Wikipedia entry on D.W. Griffith and to my surprise discovered that Charlie Chaplin described him as “The Teacher of Us All”. Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein, two of the greats of Soviet cinema, also revered him.  Orson Welles said “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”

But the biggest surprise of all was James Agee’s take on the man who arguably made the most racist film in American history. Agee was the Nation Magazine’s film critic in the 40s and 50s and a powerful voice for the downtrodden. His name is also honored by a group of leftwing film critics that was launched by Prairie Miller, the James Agee Film Society (I suggested Agee’s name as the title of our group.) In a review for the September 4, 1948 edition of the Nation Magazine, Agee wrote:

HE ACHIEVED what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man. We will never realize how good he really was until we have the chance to see his work as often as it deserves to be seen, to examine and enjoy it in detail as exact as his achievement. But even relying, as we mainly have to, on years-old memories, a good deal becomes clear. One crude but unquestionable indication of his greatness was his power to create permanent images. All through his work there are images which are as impossible to forget, once you have seen them, as some of the grandest and simplest passages in music or poetry…

“The Birth of a Nation” is equal with Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, Whitman’s war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as “the greatest”—whatever that means—but as the one great epic, tragic film. (Today, “The Birth of a Nation” is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well-meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst, it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does.

There are two things that struck me when I read these shocking words. The first was James Agee’s focus on the image. If film is primarily about moving pictures, it should not come as any big surprise that someone like Agee would be fixated on the visual aspects of the film.

But defending the film against NAACP protests is obviously a lot more questionable. What it suggests to me is that racism was so deeply embedded in American society that even a nominally progressive journal like The Nation would be insensitive to the film’s racism. Of course, there is a precedent for this in the magazine’s history as I pointed out to Ricky Kreitner, an intern there, who had written a very good article on Spielberg’s latest movie and the historical background. It turns out that despite its abolitionist reputation, the magazine had little use for Thaddeus Stevens. Consulting the magazine’s archives, Kreitner discovered an obituary on Stevens that described his demand for slave plantations to be confiscated and the land given to ex-slaves as a sign of a “mental defect”.

I wrote Kreitner that this was not the half of it. In an article I wrote for Swans in 2008 on The Early Days of the Nation Magazine, I pointed out that the editor E.L. Godkin wrote an editorial in 1874 that was very much in the spirit of “Birth of a Nation”:

As the 1870s began, Godkin openly broke with the Radicals, assailed carpetbaggers, and called for the restoration of white power in the South. In an 1874 editorial he advised The Nation’s readers that he found the average intelligence of blacks “so low that they are slightly above the level of animals.” He longed for the return of southern conservatives to power in 1877 eagerly, writing Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton and fellow adversary of democratic rule that “I do not see . . . . the negro is ever to be worked into a system of government for which you and I would have much respect.”

Given the self-righteousness of American liberalism, it might be expected that a film that glorified the KKK would pass muster at one of its citadels. However, the critical consensus on Leni Riefenstahl would tend more to the negative since the Nazis were an Official Enemy Number One unlike the Klan, a group that Harry Truman once considered joining (again we are grateful to Stone and Kuznick for pointing this out.)

Suffice it to say that Riefenstahl is usually celebrated in much the same way as Agee celebrated D.W. Griffith, for her mastery of the image rather than for her odious politics. But then again, there was a time and place when those politics seemed not particularly offensive. This is a review of her documentary on the 1936 Olympics from the March 30, 1940 New York Times. Apparently the paper had not yet figured out that the film that opened just 5 blocks from my apartment in the Yorkville neighborhood in Manhattan (a bastion of German-American support for the Nazis at the time) was inimical to all the values we hold dear.

At 86th St. Garden Theatre

After a run of three weeks the first part of “Olympia, Festival of the Nations,” the German celluloid record, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, has made way for the latter half at the Eighty-sixth Street Garden Theatre. While it gets off to a rather slow start, Part II speeds up when the exciting military riding competition hits the screen and continues at a lively pace through the field hockey, polo, soccer and cycling events and the Marathon race to the thrilling finale of the decathelon, where Glen Morris, the American, won the title of the greatest all-around athlete in the world. The photography is always effective and sometimes brilliant. There is an adequate account of the doings spoken in English. H. T. S.

The Wikipedia article on “Olympia, Festival of the Nations” takes note of the technical breakthroughs that wowed the N.Y. Times: “She was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes’ movement, and she is noted for the slow motion shots included in the film. Riefenstahl’s work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography.”

But it added that its pro-Hitler agenda was crystal-clear. This mattered not a whit to Avery Brundage who called the film the greatest ever made about the Olympics or to Walt Disney who gave her the red carpet treatment when she visited Hollywood on a tour. (Then again, few would ever associate Brundage or Disney with liberal causes.)

While I have no doubt that her work was marked by major innovations, I tend to agree with Robert Sklar’s assessment in an April 1994 Cineaste article titled—appropriately enough—“The Devil’s Director”:

It seems incredible the length to which some of Riefenstahl’s defenders–particularly among film scholars in the United States–have gone to endorse her self-proclaimed status as a great artist, regrettably ignorant of politics in her tireless quest for esthetic perfection. The answer perhaps lies in a laudable desire to protect creative persons from political persecution, however unsavory their work. A case might be made for Riefenstahl in spite of herself, rather than the case that has been made, which buys into her every self-aggrandizing claim.

Riefenstahl’s defenders reach a point of absurdity when they compare her with Sergei Eiseinstein. It’s somewhat disingenuous to link the two names as great film artists who were also propagandists for murderous regimes, when Riefenstahl denies that her works are propaganda at all. Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers require reassessment over the same issues of political responsibility to which Riefenstahl should be held. But that similarity does not qualify her films to be mentioned in the same sentence with The Battleship Potemkin among the masterpieces of film history.

Words like ‘best,’ ‘great,’ and ‘art’ ought to be resisted when discussing Leni Riefenstahl, just to avoid the cant and obfuscation which have become synonymous with her name. Give her the credit (and blame) that she deserves: she was a pioneer of what might be called mass cinematography, a producer and planner of film spectacles that required dozens of cameras, feats of coordination and logistics, and complex organization of footage for editing. Her films are mixtures of the remarkable–such as the diving scenes in Olympia, which involved splicing reverse action footage into the sequence to heighten the uncanny effect–and the commonplace.

Will Kathryn Bigelow ever be held in such esteem as D.W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl, leaving aside political considerations? Does “Zero Dark Thirty” deserve to be described as a breakthrough at least in narrative, technical, or visual terms? In other words, the sort of criteria that matter at places like the NYU or UCLA film schools?

I have my doubts.

While I may the only person who has made the connection, I find “Zero Dark Thirty” to be highly derivative of another terrorist-manhunt-of-the-century-movie. To paraphrase Christopher Marlowe, that was in another century and besides the terrorist is dead. I am speaking here of Carlos the Jackal who was the Osama bin Laden of his day.

One of the minor characters in “Zero Dark Thirty” is a spook named Larry whose technical expertise and detective work helps the CIA track the cell phone signals that lead to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who just happened to play Carlos the Jackal (a Venezuelan by birth) in the 2010 television series “Carlos” that was released in a theatrical version a year later, is cast as Larry. When I recognized Edgar Ramirez, a light bulb went on over my head. Of course, this is the same kind of “get the terrorist fiend” movie but from a different POV. Carlos appears in every scene in the 2010 television movie while bin Laden appears in none in Bigelow’s (assuming that his corpse does not count.)

Carlos the Jackal is a man on a mission. As directed by Olivier Assayas, who counts Guy DeBord as his major intellectual influence, “Carlos” is a film that makes absolutely no effort to probe the psychological depths of an urban guerrilla. He is motivated strictly by his ideology and a willingness to use force in the interests of pursuing his political goals. Both in life and as a character in a movie, he is a compelling figure even if he remains unknowable.

Essentially Boal and Bigelow have replaced the terrorist bogeyman with his pursuers who now occupy center-stage but remain as unknowable as Carlos in the final analysis. The first half hour of the film is devoted to CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) physically and verbally abusing his captives, while Maya, the lead character played by Jessica Chastain, looks on impassively. That, my friends, is exactly what you see in “Carlos” for most of its 330 minutes except that the abuse is meant to alienate a movie audience that has been hard-wired to loathe and fear “terrorists”. When the same kind of abuse is applied to our enemies who are tied up and gagged like Carlos’s captives, then it becomes high-class entertainment–the equivalent of an Eli Roth movie geared to the liberal carriage trade, the kind of people who take a rave review in the New Yorker magazine at face value. If there is one thing Hollywood has learned over the years, it is that torturing people sells popcorn even if it is frequently useless in garnering critical intelligence.

 

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