Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2020

ReelAbilities Film Festival 2020

Filed under: disabled,Film — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

On Friday March 13, 2020, CounterPunch published my review of the Socially Relevant Film Festival 2020. Before the day was up, I learned that the festival was being postponed because the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the closure of the festival theater venues.

From that day onward, my film reviews have dried up to a trickle. Five very promising films were cancelled, including one on Thomas Piketty’s new book and another on the radium girls who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials. As might be obvious from my interest in such films, I see covering them as a political obligation.

On the same day I learned that the Socially Relevant Film Festival was postponed, I received an invitation to cover the ReelAbilities Film Festival that takes place between March 31 and April 6. The festival will still be taking place but “virtually” as the N.Y. Times noted in a March 25th article:

ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York

This annual festival shows movies that raise awareness of the perspectives of the disabled, like “Code of the Freaks,” a documentary  examining representation in Hollywood movies, and “25 Prospect Street,” about a Ridgefield, Conn., theater that  hires  people with disabilities. The festival will  take place on its original dates, March 31 to April 6, but it has moved online at reelabilities.org. Screenings  can be watched at their scheduled times or for 24 hours afterward, and Q. and A.s will be available as well.

Yesterday, I watched three of the films online and found all to be first-rate. Tickets to the films appear to be entirely voluntary and generally in the interest of raising consciousness about disability rights that are under threat right now. ProPublica just reported that “Advocates for people with intellectual disabilities are concerned that those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and other such conditions will be denied access to lifesaving medical treatment as the COVID-19 outbreak spreads across the country.”

Code of the Freaks

This is the opening night feature and a great one at that. Like “The Celluloid Closet” that documented the homophobia in Hollywood films, this documentary does the same thing for the objectification of disabled people going back to the silent film era. It was written by Susan Nussbaum who is also interviewed throughout the film. After an automobile accident made her wheelchair-bound, Nussbaum became a disability rights activist. In helping to make this film, she will help anybody who sees it to take a fresh look at any film with a major character who is either blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound, intellectually challenged or deformed. “Code of the Freaks” is a survey of some of the best-known films in this genre, including the Helen Keller biopic “The Miracle Worker”, with mordant and penetrating commentary by disabled people.

Among the most interesting observations made by the interviewees had to do with the differences between how blind people were represented. For blind women who have to deal with a home invasion by a rapist or killer, there’s an obligatory scene of the heroine taking a bath while being stalked by the intruder. Needless to say, the female is played by a beauty queen like Audrey Hepburn but never a real blind woman. Generally, except for Marlee Beth Matlin, the actresses are fully abled. By representing these women as both vulnerable and sexually attractive, it is a way to tantalize the audience through a combination of horror and desire.

On the other hand, blind men are often portrayed as assertive and risk-taking. No better example of that is Al Pacino behind the wheel in “Scent of a Woman” refusing to slow down by his front-seat companion. This is not to speak of all the action films featuring a blind man who has mastered some martial art or swordsmanship. In either case, male or female, there is little interest in making a naturalistic film that depicts disabled people dealing with the same sorts of issues that abled people face.

As a genre, films about the disabled often show women serving disabled men sexually as a kind of charity. In “The Sessions”, Helen Hunt plays a professional sex surrogate helping a man in an iron lung lose his virginity. One of the film’s highly capable commentators wonders why can’t a film be made about a disabled couple getting it on?

One of the more unsettling moments of the film comes with its analysis of “Gattaca”, a film that concludes with its disabled main character committing suicide in order to become “one with the universe”. You get the same sort of send-off in “The Elephant Man”, when after the main character kills himself, you get an “inspiring” panorama shot of distant stars in the heavens as if his soul has joined them.

You get a feel for the snarling intensity of this film from an article Susan Nussbaum wrote for the Huffington Post:

When I became a wheelchair-user in the late ‘70s, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me. Tiny Tim was long-suffering and angelic and was cured at the end. Quasimodo was a monster who loved in vain and was killed at the end, but it was for the best. Lenny was a child who killed anything soft, and George had to shoot him.[A reference to “Of Mice and Men.] It was a mercy killing. Ahab was a bitter amputee and didn’t care how many died in his mad pursuit to avenge himself on a whale. Laura Wingeld [in Tennessee Williams’s “Glass Menagerie”] had a limp so no man would ever love her.

Our Time Machine

With a 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and deservedly so, this 2019 documentary is about the efforts of Chinese artist Maleonn to connect with his father, an elderly former director of the Shanghai opera company suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Maleonn works in various media, but his most ambitious medium is making extremely life-like puppets. He decides to create a puppet show depicting the relationship between a father and a son that mirrors his own relationship. In the play, the father is a pilot rather than an opera director. To help his ailing father, the puppet son constructs a time machine that allows the man to go back into the past to regain lost memories. The puppets made for father and son are phenomenal but the most breathtaking realizations are the time-machine and airplane that are a combination of Rube Goldberg and Jean Tinguely.

Toward the end of the film, Maleonn is barely recognized by his father. Each time he shows his newborn granddaughter to the old man, he is asked who she is. When he replies that this is his granddaughter, his father beams in pleasure. Maleonn quips that this is maybe one saving grace of Alzheimer’s that the victim continues to enjoy each moment as if for the first time.

Kinetics – Where Parkinson’s Meets Parkour

Written and directed by Sue Wylie, this narrative film casts her in the leading role as a drama professor learning that she has early onset of Parkinson’s. Wylie’s script is based on her own experience dealing with the trauma of dealing with a loss of balance and motion.

In this two-character film, she meets a student who has his own issues with mind and body. Lukas almost falls on top of her as he has jumped from a wall alongside the sidewalk she is navigating with some difficulty. Lukas suffers from ADHD and used parkour as a way of feeling more control over his life and emotions. Wikipedia describes parkour as a “training discipline using movement that developed from military obstacle course training”. Its practitioners seek to get from one point to another in a complex environment, without specialized gear.

As someone who lost a best friend to Parkinson’s in 2018, Sue Wylie’s travails were familiar to me. Her ability to extract some hope out of her experience is in line with the other two films discussed above. All three are first-rate films and worthy of your support at a time when filmmaking, like most other group experiences, is under siege.

March 23, 2020

Who Will Write Our History

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Over the past couple of months, I have been going through some of the backlogged DVD’s I received from film studios meant to help influence my nominations for the yearly NYFCO awards in early December. Most have been ejected from my DVD player after 10 or 15 minutes, including the highly touted “The Farewell” (98 percent Fresh on RT.)

Close to the bottom of the pile was “Who Will Write Our History”, a documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto. I generally have an aversion for any film about the holocaust since they implicitly play into what Norman Finkelstein has described as an industry. Since this one was executive produced by Steven Spielberg’s sister Nancy, my expectations were even lower since I associate the Spielberg brand name with “save the Jews” products such as “Schindler’s List” and “Munich”.

It turns out that I was wrong. “Who Will Write Our History” is a masterful study of a group of Jewish historians, artists, poets, activists, and journalists who belonged to Oyneg Shabes (joy of the sabbath), an underground group led by left-wing Zionists sympathetic to the USSR and the Communist Party. Unlike the desperate and poorly-armed Jewish combatants who died in the legendary uprising, Oyneg Shabes was at attempt to document the lives of Jews under occupation. Watching it yesterday had additional significance as an analog of New York City today. Instead of death at Treblinka, we oldsters might succumb to COVID-19.

In addition to gathering together articles from the Jewish press, photos, art works, and other memorabilia, Oyneg Shabes  provided mutual aid to those desperately in need, especially through soup kitchens. In my CounterPunch article last Friday about post-Sanders politics, I mentioned how my grandfather Louis Proyect led the Workman’s Circle in Woodridge, N.Y. Among other things, this mutual aid group helped to bail out Jewish immigrants who were badly in need of food and housing when they got off the boat. Just as Occupy Wall Street came to help people in need after Hurricane Sandy, groups are coming together now to provide assistance to those trying to survive the COVID-19 ordeal. Socialist politics has often functioned as a promissory note about the future, better world. Oyneg Shabes and similar efforts today focus on the desperate present. Isn’t it possible that this is the best way to draw the oppressed into a fighting movement?

“Who Will Write Our History” is based on the 2007 book “Who will Write our History: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive”, written by Trinity College historian Samuel Kassow. Kassow’s book details the group’s work under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum, a leader of Poale Zion. Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) emerged out the Bundist movement that was the target of both Lenin and Trotsky’s polemics. At a certain point, Bundists became more and more convinced that it was necessary to create a Jewish state for their salvation. The rightwing eventually crystallized as MapaiKassow chapter on comradesKassow chapter on comrades, the same party that David Ben-Gurion led. The leftwing veered toward labor Zionism of the sort that both Ringleblum and Martin Monath identified with. (Monath, of course, is the subject of Nathaniel Flakin’s highly-regarded “Martin Monath: A Jewish Resistance Fighter Amongst Nazi Soldiers.”)

Kassow provides expert analysis along with other historians in the documentary that was directed by Roberta Grossman, who is also a prominent interviewee. Although Grossman’s primary interest is in Jewish life, she also made a film taking up the cause of American Indians (“500 Nations”) and another about blues singer Sippie Wallace (“Sippie”).

Grossman adopted a novel approach in “Who Will Write Our History”. She used a cast of actors and actresses to play the men and women of Oyneg Shabes. Speaking Yiddish, they have tense meetings about how to preserve the archives as well as Jewish lives. Next to Ringleburg, the most important character is Rachel Auerbach, whose work as an editor did not preclude her from serving in a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto. During her time there, she wrote “Two Years in the Ghetto”. Here is a brief excerpt:

Our heads were full of ash and soot from the fires that engulfed the city only a little while before. The heels of our shoes were split from trudging through the stone and bricks of buildings destroyed by bombs and our nostrils filled with smoke and the smell of corpses. The noise of planes and exploding bombs still echoed in our ears.

It looked as if an earthquake had hit the city. The government was dead but the body wasn’t yet buried, and we were the mourners for the burial. These were the last days of September 1939. After the capitulation of Warsaw and just before the German army officially marched in.

Near the end of September, on the first or second of a “Series of Black Days” of the first German placards on the walls, the poet Rajzel Zychlinsky came to me with the news that Emanuel Ringelblum was looking for me. He’d asked her to let me know I was wanted at the “Joint” office.

After the destruction of its building on Jasna 11, the “Joint” had moved to Wielka Street. We had heard that Ringelblum carried on with his work during the entire siege, in the most intense days of bombardment, even on that frightening Monday, September 25th, when the bombardment lasted without letup from eight in the morning till six at night. The day that marked the beginning of the fall of Warsaw.

Much of the footage in the film is quite grim. You see dead people lying in the street being carted off by Jewish laborers. You also see Nazi propaganda films attempting to depict Jews as unclean and untrustworthy. They are sickening. Despite the very dark nature of the film’s content, it is a stunning portrait of people rising to the occasion.

Some Jews operated in just the opposite way. Refusing to prettify life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Grossman makes sure to include scenes of Jewish cops operated in the name of the Judenrat herding their brethren into trains destined for Treblinka. The poet Itzhak Katznelson, who was part of the Oyneg Shabes leadership, viewed them as “the scum of the earth,” “filthy souls,” and “the so-called ‘Jewish’ policeman, who has nothing of the Jew and nothing of the human-being.” As for Ringelblum, he referred to the “cruelty of the Jewish Police, which at times was greater than that of the Germans, the Ukrainians and the Latvians.”

I will conclude with an excerpt from chapter five of Kassow’s book titled “A Band of Comrades” (the entire chapter can be read here) that describes the partnership between Hashomer Hatzair (a leftist Zionist group that both Monath and SWP leader Peter Buch belonged to) and the LPZ, Ringleblum’s organization:

Hashomer and the LPZ started to bury the hatchet with the coming of the war in 1939. Both groups realized that, apart from the Communists, they were the most pro-Soviet organizations in the ghetto. Neither group idealized the Soviet Union, but when the war began both agreed that, whatever its faults, the Soviet Union was the Jews’ best hope. True, Britain was fighting Hitler but that did not make London an ally of the Jews. After all, in 1939 Britain had betrayed Zionism with the White Paper. Zionism’s best chance depended on the collapse of British rule in the Middle East; only world revolution and the Soviet Union could make that happen.

So while Dror and the Bund supported Britain as she fought alone against Hitler, the LPZ and Hashomer wrote in their underground press about an “imperialist war” between Germany and Britain. Difficult as it may be to believe that these Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto saw no difference between Hitler and Churchill, the fact remains that under the conditions they faced they desperately needed ideological certainties and dogmas that afforded hope and a shred of optimism. Ringelblum did not discuss these views much in his diary, but his party preached these notions in its underground press, which was co-edited by Hersh Wasser.

Once Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, all Jews naturally hoped for a Red Army victory. Hashomer and the LPZ could now dispense with the unnatural cant about the imperialist war and cheer on a USSR that was allied with Britain and the United States. In March 1942 the LPZ, Hashomer, Dror, and the Right Poalei Tsiyon joined the Communists in the formation of an “Anti-Fascist Bloc.” As Raya Cohen has pointed out, the new situation forced Hashomer to become less focused on Palestine and more concerned with the “here”: the ghetto, the war, and the situation in Europe. Although the movement’s hostility to Yiddish never disappeared, it began to issue a Yiddish publication (Oyfbroyz), a sign that for all its elitism and isolation it was at last reaching out to those outside its narrow circle. Thus the ideological gap between Hashomer and the LPZ continued to narrow.

Finally, I must mention a very good review of Kassow’s book on the World Socialist Web Site. Although I am very critical of the sect, I highly recommend Clara Weiss’s 2015 article:

After the seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, the Bolshevik government for the first time granted full civil rights to a substantial part of Eastern European Jewry. In response to these developments, the Poalei Tsiyon split into a left and a right wing in 1920. (Borochov himself had turned against the revolution before his early death in December 1917.) The right wing opposed the Revolution and was oriented toward gathering support from British imperialism for the foundation of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. In Palestine, the Right Poalei Tsiyon became the basis for David Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut HaAvoda (Labor Unity), the predecessor of the Israeli Labor Party, which played a major role in the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

By contrast, the Left Poalei Tsiyon (LPZ), whose own members in Russia supported the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, defended the Soviet Union and advocated world revolution. The LPZ’s claim to admission to the Third International (Comintern) was rejected by Lenin, however, as the party refused to break with the ideology of Ber Borochov. The Left Poalei Tsiyon continued to support the foundation of a Jewish nation state in Palestine, albeit on a “socialist basis.” Central to the organization’s political and cultural work was its emphasis on the significance of Yiddish culture, based on the language of the impoverished Jewish masses of Eastern Europe.

Overall, the LPZ stood significantly to the left of the better known and larger Bund, which opposed the seizure of power by the working class in 1917 and continued to work within the Second International. Many members of the LPZ and its youth organization, Yugnt (Youth), defected to the Communist Party of Poland in the late 1920s and early 30s, and both organizations often worked together closely.

Given the extraordinary impoverishment of substantial sections of Jewish workers and intellectuals and the growing anti-Semitism under the regime of Józef Piłsudski in Poland, both left-wing organizations enjoyed significant support. The Bund and the LPZ oversaw impressive networks of newspapers, ran their own schools and were active in numerous self-help organizations and trade unions. As Kassow points out:

For a young person who lived in a cellar in Lodz’s impoverished Balut or Warsaw’s Smocza Street, groups like the Bund and the LPZ were far more than mere political parties. They represented a road to self-respect and human dignity, a way to strive for ‘something better.’ (p. 35)

(“Who Will Write Our History” is available for $2.99 on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Hulu and other VOD sites.)

March 13, 2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Filed under: feminism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

Opening today at the Angelica and the Landmark on 57th street, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” gets its title from a multiple choice series of questions that a social worker at an abortion clinic in NY poses to the 17-year-old protagonist of this powerful neo-realist film who has come to New York. One of the questions that she answers without hesitation is “Have you had anal sex?” The answer is sometimes. However, when she is asked if her boyfriend has beaten her, she pauses for a moment and then begins crying softly.

Directed by Eliza Hittman, it has a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and deservedly so. Its two main characters speak for a generation of young women who have seen abortion rights erode under a relentless attack from the Republican Party. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), the pregnant girl, works as a cashier in a Western Pennsylvania town that, following the state law, will not permit an abortion unless she has a parent’s signature. This is something she cannot agree to. When she rushes to the bathroom at work due to morning sickness, her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who works alongside her, trails behind to see what’s wrong. Autumn is evasive, only saying that is woman’s stuff. She eventually learns that Autumn is two months pregnant.

Like many young women dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, she goes to a center promising help with a pregnancy listed in the Yellow Pages. A staff member gives her a pregnancy detection kit that turns out positive. Autumn asks her if she could have bought such a kit at pharmacy and done the test herself. The staff members agrees that she could have but then directs the conversation toward possible solutions to her problem, which involve giving up the baby to adoption and just about everything else except terminating the pregnancy. To help persuade Autumn, she begins playing a video about the rights of the fetus made by some Evangelical sect. That’s enough for Autumn to figure out that she’s been the victim of a bait and switch operation.

Autumn and Skylar pool their meager savings from their minimum wage jobs and get on a bus headed to New York. As it leaves town, you see abandoned coal mines and factories on the way. This is a film that places its main characters into a social and economic context that is sadly lacking in most Hollywood films about unplanned pregnancies. In fact, to my knowledge there has never been one made that makes you feel like a happy ending will be the termination of “life”. The director’s ethos is that of the abortion rights movement of the 1970. When it is coupled to a style of an American Ken Loach, this is a film you must see. Hopefully, the theaters will still be open for business. My recommendation is to go see it and sit somewhere a few seats away from everybody else. A work like this deserves strong word-of-mouth.

Despite Hollywood’s liberal veneer, whenever the topic of unplanned pregnancies is tackled, the outcome is a film that would be embraced by the Christian right. In my 2007 review of “Knocked Up”, I commented:

 Despite its MTV ‘tude, “Knocked Up” boils down to a defense of “family values.” In 2005, “Just Like Heaven,” another romantic comedy, was a veiled defense of keeping Terri Schiavo on the feeding tube with its attractive female lead in a coma. Now we have “right to life” at the opposite end of the life-cycle. As difficult as it is to imagine an ambitious and reasonably intelligent woman like Allison Scott going to bed with a slob like Ben Stone, it is even far more difficult to imagine her having his baby.

The film notes give you an idea of how important this film was to its director/screenwriter:

Hittman did field research in Pennsylvania, where abortion restrictions have resulted in women crossing state lines to get the procedure in neighboring New York and New Jersey. She traveled to some of the state’s small towns to see what reproductive healthcare services were available to women living there. She came across pregnancy centers, which are affiliated with the pro-life movement and steer pregnant women towards either parenthood or adoption. In visiting these centers, Hittman went through the same steps a client would: taking a pregnancy test and speaking with the women who worked there. She then wrote a second treatment informed by her research, but her own pregnancy subsequently led her to set the project aside.

 

 

March 6, 2020

The Romanian New Wave

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:25 pm

The 2006 film that signaled the birth of the Romanian New Wave

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 6, 2020

Although I was only one of the few film critics who did not find Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” worthy of an Academy Award for best film of 2020, I was happy to see a foreign-language film get such an award for the first time. As a fan of two of his earlier films (The Host, Mother), I do count him as one of South Korea’s top directors. As should be obvious from my surveys of South Korean film for CounterPunch, I consider the country to be on the leading edge of filmmaking today, alongside Iran, China and Romania. Ironically, these four nations that have long histories of repression are far more richly endowed cinematically. Perhaps, it is not such an irony in light of our greatest composers having served as court musicians under clerics and monarchs.

Until now, there has only been a single review of a Romanian film on CounterPunch, and it was not mine. It was by the redoubtable Kim Nicolini, who in 2008 described “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” as “the movie that I’ve been waiting to see for months, and it did not disappoint.”

Here’s the good news. “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”, which describes the desperate search by a young woman to find someone in 1980s Romania to perform an illegal abortion, is part of a traveling film festival titled “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema.” Scheduling information is here. The festival includes thirty films, including a number originating before what film scholars have dubbed the Romanian New Wave or New Romanian Cinema.

Continue reading

February 15, 2020

Four narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:44 pm

After wasting my time watching a bunch of crappy Hollywood movies to fulfill my obligation as a NYFCO member to judge front-runners like “Joker” or “1917” for our awards meeting in early December, I am finally returning to my kind of films. These are generally featured in art houses like the Film Forum in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. The four under review here are worth seeing if you spot them playing in your home town. There’s a good shot that they will eventually end up on Amazon, the only real contribution Jeff Bezos has made to humanity.

Corpus Christi (opens February 19th at the Film Forum)

In 1936, Ignazio Silone wrote the anti-fascist novel “Bread and Wine” that told the story of a young revolutionary who assumes the identity of a priest in order to throw the cops off his trail. He lives in a poverty-stricken village made up by the kind of backward peasant that Marx had in mind when he called religion the opium of the people. It was not exactly a call for abolishing religion since he also writes, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

Once he assumes this identity, the revolutionary is besieged by peasants who need someone to minister to their spiritual and economic needs. This forces him to improvise, often calling upon the good sense and humanitarian instincts that made him a revolutionary.

In “Corpus Christi”, a Polish film directed by the 38-year old Jan Komasa, we have a similar plot but the main character Daniel is not a revolutionary. Instead, he is a young man who has just been released from prison to serve the rest of his term for second-degree murder through a work-release program. He is sent to a rural town to labor for a pittance in a saw-mill. The town is not nearly so poor economically as the one in “Bread and Wine” but just as spiritually bereft, if not more so.

When he was in prison, Daniel became an assistant to the chaplain. Over time he became more and more spiritually-minded and especially looked forward to singing hymns at prison masses. On the day he was to be released, he asked the priest if there was any possibility of being recommended for the Catholic seminary. He was told that his prison term made that impossible. So much for Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness.

Perhaps as a sign of his yearning for the life of a priest, Daniel purloins a priest’s vestment and takes it with him to the town where he is to become just another parolee carrying out what amounts to indentured servitude. Once there, he stops in at the local church to meditate. When he learns later that day that the local priest is about to go on a leave of absence, he puts on the clerical clothes he brought with him and convinces the priest that he is legitimate and willing to sub for him. Was he succumbing to baser motives such as higher pay and an easier way of making a living? Or did the time spent in religious services in prison transform him?

The screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz, who is only 27 years old, told 28 Times Cinema: “What fascinated me from the beginning was the ambivalence of the premise. We have somebody who maybe just does it for money. Perhaps, it’s also for some emotional profit. He wants to feel he’s someone better than he really is. Maybe it’s a whole different reason. This multi-dimensionality was what kept me going working on the story.”

They say that clothing makes the man. In his case, Daniel turns out to be much more of a holy man than the one he has replaced. In a town that is tormented by a terrible automobile accident (or deliberate homicide), he brings solace to the families that lost a son or daughter. At the same time, he comforts a woman whose husband was judged guilty for plowing his car into the one that was carrying the young people still being mourned, a year after the tragedy. The town has ostracized her in a manner reminiscent of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.

As someone with not a spiritual bone in my body, I found “Corpus Christi” deeply moving. It lacks the political edge of the kind of films I tend to write about but the story-telling is first-rate. It moved me in the same way that Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” did. As Daniel, Bartosz Bielenia is unforgettable.

The Whistlers (opens February 28th at the Film Forum)

This is a Romanian film directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, whose work I am not familiar with. “The Whistlers” is a crime story with a very fresh take on the genre involving crooked cops and the drug trade. The main character is a middle-aged cop named Cristi who teamed up with a Romanian drug dealer to rip off some Spanish dealers.

The plot is far too complicated to go into any kind of detail so suffice it to say that Cristi ends up on the Canary Islands to meet with the Spanish gangsters who will coerce him into leading them to the stash he and his partner have buried back in Romania. To make sure they are not found out by honest cops (a scarcity in Romania, as the film will point out) on their trail, they communicate through a whistled language that is unique to the people of the Gomera island in the Canaries. It has between 2 and 4 vowels and between 4 and 10 consonants.

“The Whistlers” was likely made for an international audience and lacks the darkly introspective character of Romanian films of 10 to 15 years ago that explored the corruption of both Communist and post-Communist rule. In its favor, it is a throwback to Alfred Hitchcock’s confections like “To Catch a Thief” or “Marnie”. Intricately plotted and swiftly paced, it is far more entertaining than the lead-footed movies I endured in the weeks before the NYFCO awards meeting in early December.

Sorry We Missed You (opens at the Film Forum on March 4th and at Nuart in Los Angeles on March 6th)

This is Ken Loach’s 55th credit as a director since 1964. Now 83 years old, he still is capable of making the kind of gut-wrenching, pro-working class film that has distinguished his career.

In the opening scene, we meet Ricky Turner, a man in his mid-forties, who is being interviewed for a job delivering packages in an unnamed British town. Formally speaking, he will not become an employee but a “franchisee”. Like Uber or Lyft, he is supposedly self-employed but no more so than the people who used to spin cloth at home in the earliest stages of capitalism. That’s a sign of the combined and uneven nature of capitalism today that the most up-to-date technology is used to exploit a worker like Ricky Turner in the same way his fellow Brits were 600 years ago.

To qualify for the position, Ricky needs a van. He can rent one from the subcontractor but at a hefty price. Like most men or women desperate enough to work in such a position, he takes a risk and puts a down payment on a van for a thousand pounds. To raise the cash, his wife Abbie sells their car, something that makes her job much more difficult. She is a home nurse who goes from house to house looking after the elderly, most of whom are suffering from dementia or some other severe geriatric illness. The job is low-paying and emotionally draining. Without a car, Abbie is forced to take the bus. When they get home late at night, they can barely communicate with their children, a teen boy named Sebastian and a grade school girl named Liza Jane.

Their absence only accelerates the self-destructive tendencies of Sebastian whose only pleasure in life is going out with his mates spray-painting graffiti, one step ahead of the cops. When he is arrested for shoplifting spray paint, Ricky has to give up a day’s pay to sort things out at the police station.

In the final moments of the film, everything is falling apart around the famuly. This, of course, is not just a story about a family. It is the story of the English working class today, as heart-felt and as compelling as Engels’s “Conditions of the Working-Class in England”. In many ways, Ricky is a casualty of the collapse of this class since the drying up of construction jobs, his mainstay over the years, has plummeted him into the depths of contingent labor.

For background on how such workers fare, I recommend an April 14, 2019 Guardian article:

The Observer has been contacted by three drivers who have delivered parcels for Amazon. They report shifts of 12 hours or more on zero hours contracts, unpaid overtime and penalties for failing to meet onerous targets. Because they are classed as self-employed, they are obliged to pay for their vehicles and expenses and do not receive sickness or holiday pay. They claim long, unpredictable hours and transport costs mean that pay can amount to less than the minimum wage.

Better yet, I recommend going to Film Forum to see this extraordinary film by our greatest living radical filmmaker.

Burnt Orange Heresy (Opens March 6th at the Landmark in New York)

This stars Claes Bang, the brilliant Danish actor, as a chain-smoking, pill-popping art critic named James Figueras who makes a living giving lectures to tourists in Italy. Author of “The Power of the Critic”, he lives beyond his means and has even been caught misusing funds meant for business expenses for his lavish life-style. This bit of thievery came this close to landing him in prison.

At his last lecture, he meets a stunning blonde and they begin a passionate affair. A week or so into the affair, he is contacted by one of the world’s most successful art dealers, a man named Joseph Cassidy, who is played by Mick Jagger to serpentine perfection.

Cassidy lives in a palatial home overlooking Lake Como. On his grounds, living in a modest cabin, is one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists, an elderly man named Jerome Debney, who is played by Donald Sutherland. Debney shocked the art world by setting fire to his studio out of weariness with the art world and its critics. Since all his paintings were destroyed, Cassidy has hopes that Figueras can persuade Debney to do one last painting so as to cash in on its rarity—and hence its value.

I imagine that Bang was cast in this role since he was so great playing the shady director of a museum a lot like the Whitney in New York. It traffics in the questionable avant-garde, even more so than the Whitney. I reviewed the film in 2017 and invite you to see it now as VOD. It is fantastic.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” is based on a novel by Charles Willeford, who died in 1988. I was not familiar with Willeford. Before he became a writer, he knocked around as a professional boxer, actor, horse trainer, and radio announcer. He was a noir novelist like James M. Cain who one critic described as the “genre’s equivalent of Philip K. Dick’s best science fiction novels.” That’s a pretty good recommendation.

February 10, 2020

My NYFCO ballot for 2019

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) had its annual awards meeting on December 8, 2019. As is usually the case, my ballot and the membership majority were not quite aligned. You can check out their awards here, which agreed with the Academy Award’s choice of “Parasite” for best film of the year. I usually don’t pay much attention to awards since I don’t believe in competition but since someone on Facebook asked me what my nomination for best documentary was, I decided to post my ballot. (I told him that “American Factory” was not my first choice but defended it as a good film notwithstanding it being produced by the Obamas.)

New York Film Critics Online 2019 Awards Nomination Ballot

NAME: Louis Proyect

Breakthrough Performance (name actor/film)

 

  1. Adam Driver (Marriage Story)

 

  1. Taron Egerton (Rocketman)

 

  1. Adam Pearson (Chained for Life)

 

Supporting Actress (name actor/film)

 

  1. Laura Dern (Marriage Story)

 

  1. Jess Weixler (Chained for Life)

 

  1. Marziyeh Rezaei (Three Faces)

 

Supporting Actor (name actor/film)

 

  1. Joe Pesci (The Irishman)

 

  1. Jamie Bell (Rocketman)

 

  1. David Call (Depraved)

 

Screenplay (name film)

 

  1. The Irishman

 

  1. Marriage Story

 

  1. Chained for Life

 

Cinematography (name film)

 

  1. Arctic

 

  1. Joker

 

  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

 

Use of Music (name film)

 

  1. Rocketman

 

  1. Joker

 

  1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

 

Debut Director (name directors/film)

 

  1. Joe Penna (Arctic)

 

  1. Adam Egypt Mortimer (Daniel Isn’t Real)

 

  1. A.B. Shawky (Yomeddine)

 

Director (name directors/film)

 

  1. Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)

 

  1. Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)

 

  1. Aaron Schimberg (Chained for Life)

 

Actress (name actor/film)

 

  1. Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)

 

  1. Carlie Guevara (The Garden Left Behind)

 

  1. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Woman at War)

 

 

Actor (name actor/film)

 

  1. Robert De Niro (The Irishman)

 

  1. Adam Driver (Marriage Story)

 

  1. Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

 

Ensemble Cast (name film)

 

  1. Knives Out

 

  1. Bombshell

 

  1. The Wild Pear Tree

 

Picture (name film)

 

  1. The Irishman

 

  1. Marriage Story

 

  1. Three Faces

 

Foreign Language (name film)

 

  1. Woman at War

 

  1. Rojo

 

  1. Styx

 

Documentary (name film)

 

  1. The Cave

 

  1. For Sama

 

  1. The Biggest Little Farm

 

Animated Feature (name film)

 

  1. I Lost My Body

 

  1. Weathering With You

 

 

 

 

February 7, 2020

The Revolutionary Cinema of Patricio Guzman

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 7, 2020

On February 12th, the IFC in New York will begin showing “The Cordillera of Dreams”, the latest film from Patricio Guzman. The 78-year-old Chilean is one of Latin America’s most celebrated leftwing directors, whose three-part “The Battle of Chile” became an iconic film alongside Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’s 1968 tripartite “Hour of the Furnaces” that dealt with the revolutionary movement in Argentina. For sixties radicals like me, these films were required viewing. Timed to the release of Guzman’s latest, Ovid—the Netflix of the left—has added five Guzman films to their nonpareil inventory. After some words on “The Cordillera Of Dreams”, I will cover some of the new Ovid offerings.

Cordillera is the Spanish word for mountain range, such as the Andes that Guzman uses as a symbol of Chilean hopes and disappointment. Constituting 80 percent of Chile’s landmass, it is the primary source of the country’s copper-mining wealth and its cultural legacy. For most Chileans, it is just something seen in landscape paintings, including a mural in the Santiago subway.

Like a leitmotif in one of Wagner’s operas, Guzman returns to images of the mountains, captured beautifully by a drone. They serve as a backdrop for the nation’s search for identity in a period when neoliberalism governs all social relations. That identity remains with him despite not having lived in the country since the coup. In dozens of films since “The Battle of Chile”, he has struggled to keep alive the dreams that marked the pre-coup years when everything seemed possible. The cordillera of dreams is a way of saying that dreams are as permanent as the Andes.

Continue reading

February 4, 2020

Ray and Liz

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

“Ray and Liz”, a 2018 British film, is now being made available as a DVD or VOD by KimStim, a small Brooklyn-based company that specializes in independent, foreign, and documentary film. It was written and directed by Richard Billingham, the son of the eponymous Ray and Liz and older brother to Jason, the three principal characters of this harrowing portrait of people living on the dole in the Black Country of England. Black is not a reference to people of African origins but to the towns just west of Birmingham, named, according to Wikipedia, for the soot from the heavy industries that once covered the area, although a 30-foot-thick coal seam close to the surface is another possible origin. Wikipedia adds, “During the Industrial Revolution, it became one of the most industrialized parts of the UK with coal mines, coking, iron foundries, glass factories, brickworks and steel mills producing a high level of air pollution.”

Now, Black Country is England’s version of Flint, Michigan or any other rust belt region in the USA. Although Billingham’s film is not meant be a history of the area and only a study of his hyper-dysfunctional family, you can easily surmise that the alcoholism that turned his parents into a child’s worst nightmare grew out of the same kind of despair that led to an opioid epidemic in West Virginia and other coal-mining states. In the same way that chronic unemployment led some people to either vote for Trump or stay at home because of Hillary Clinton’s indifference to their suffering, the film will give you a good idea of why Brexit might have succeeded. It is particularly useful in raising the question whether “socialist” measures such as the dole or council housing are adequate to the needs of people like Ray and Liz. Their self-destructive behavior obviously flows from the feeling of worthlessness after years of being unemployed.

It is impossible to determine whether all the events that take place in “Ray and Liz” are based on reality, but if the one that begins the film did take place, it is a miracle that Richard Billingham could have become the productive artist that he is today. As Job said in the Old Testament, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

The day starts with Ray’s brother Lol coming over to babysit Jason, who appears to be about three years old at the time, while Ray, Liz and Richard go off shopping for new shoes. Like Ray and Liz, Lol is an alcoholic and totally unreliable—even more so than them. Just minutes after they depart, Bill shows up—the young, motorcycle-driving, muscular and malicious tenant who rents a room in their council house. Despite being warned by Liz that he will be “pummeled” if he touches their booze, Lol gives Bill the green light to search for their stash. He brings down a cardboard box filled with bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and brandy that the two men begin sampling. Bill makes sure to keep pouring new shots for Lol that he gladly consumes in a graphic illustration of why mixing your drinks is not a good idea. Getting him dead drunk will allow Bill to follow through with his plans.

Once Lol crashes to the living-room floor like a falling tree, Bill arranges the near-empty bottles around him as planted evidence and robs his wallet. Next, he takes some shoe-polish and dabs it on Jason’s face like warpaint. To make sure that Ray and Liz will reach full fury after coming home, he places a carving knife in the toddler’s hand. Liz, a chain-smoking, tattooed, obese but powerful woman, wakes Lol up from his drunken slupor by beating him over the head with the heel of the new shoe she has just bought and tells him that he should never come back.

Although Billingham covers the same terrain as Ken Loach, it is not as a social critic. Indeed, I could not help but think that the film had something in common with the comic strip “Andy Capp” that was a fixture of British and American tabloids in the 1960s. Andy Capp was a worthless, alcoholic, and chronically unemployed worker who had no respect for himself or for others, especially his wife Flo who often had to drag him home from a pub. Don Markstein, the creator of a web-based encyclopedia about comic strips, wrote:

Early on, the Andy Capp strip was accused of perpetuating stereotypes about Britain’s Northerners, who are seen in other parts of England as chronically unemployed, dividing their time between the living room couch and the neighbourhood pub, with a few hours set aside for fistfights at football games … But Smythe [the author], himself a native of that region, had nothing but affection for his good-for-nothing protagonist, which showed in his work. Since the very beginning, Andy has been immensely popular among the people he supposedly skewers.

Perhaps Markstein cannot grasp that the affection working-class people had for the strip is a function of their own inferiority complex. It is like how some black people enjoyed “Amos and Andy” or how some American Indians are okay with racist names like the Washington Redskins or mascots like the Cleveland Indians’s Chief Wahoo. Although I confess to having never seen a single episode of “Shameless”, the British TV show it is based on seems to follow the same pattern as “Andy Capp”. The main character, Frank Gallagher, is an unemployed alcoholic from Northern England who has few redeeming features. Libcom, an anarchist website, does make the case for “Shameless” as drawing a contrast between “the strength, complexity and resilience of the contemporary ‘underclass’ against the patronising poverty-traps laid by liberal handwringing, middle-class moral managerialism and New Labour police-state discipline and punishment,” but I’d still stick with Ken Loach.

“Ray and Liz” is currently available as a DVD from Walmart or Target for $18.95, $7 cheaper than at Amazon. You can also wait until April, when it will be available as VOD. Although I still have reservations about its politics, it is searing and often very funny study of down and out working-class life in today’s England.

January 28, 2020

Beanpole

Filed under: Film,Russia,WWII — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

Opening at the Film Forum in N.Y. tomorrow, “Beanpole” is a Russian film set in Leningrad just after the war has ended. In addition to the shattered buildings left behind in the 900-day siege, there are also shattered human beings who survived by their wits and a stubborn desire to enjoy a normal life once again.

Among those who will have the hardest time living a normal life again are the veterans in a military hospital who have suffered either grievous wounds and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. The nurses caring for them have suffered as well, including Iya, who is nicknamed beanpole because of her towering height and willowy build. When we first meet her, she is standing as still as a statue in the nurses’ quarters. As a former anti-aircraft gunner, her PTSD is manifested by unpredictable freezes that last for a few minutes and that made her unfit for further duty.

When she is not caring for the patients, she is in her room looking after Peshka, a toddler who craves both her attention and food. The first she can easily supply, the second on a hit-and-miss basis. Although the siege has ended, the population is just one step ahead of feeding on cats and dogs as had been the case during the war. One day, as she was playfully roughhousing with the boy, she freezes up when he is beneath her and becomes collateral damage of the Nazi’s genocidal attack.

Not long after the boy has died, Iya’s sister anti-aircraft gunner Masha shows up at the hospital to reunite with Peshka, who has been left in her friend’s care. Iya breaks the sad news that the boy has died but in his sleep rather than under her immobile body. Having been robbed of normal human reactions by four years of fighting on the front lines, Masha takes the news in stride and even remains dispassionate after learning later on that Iya was at fault.

After taking a job as a nurse, Masha hopes to rebuild her life. With her husband a casualty of the war, her top priority is finding a man who can provide the seed she needs to create a new life. Learning that battleground wounds have left her sterile, she insists that Iya must become pregnant on her behalf. Since Iya is suffering from PTSD and had little interest in men to begin with, that becomes a demand that threatens to destroy their friendship.

Unlike any film I have seen in decades, “Beanpole” hearkens back to the golden age of Russian cinema as seen in “And Quiet Flows the Don” or “The Cranes Are Flying”. Like the second film, it is a wrenching tale of the emotional and physical costs of WWII. Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 classic is a tale of redemption and concludes with the characters looking forward to life of peace and socialist prosperity. Given the post-Soviet sensibility of the 28-year old director/screenwriter Kantemir Balagov, hopes are placed most of all in the sisterhood the two principal actresses share.

In the director’s statement that accompanies this film that is the Russian entry for best foreign film in the upcoming Academy Awards, he stresses the importance of telling not just the story of the two women but a city that perhaps one day will be renamed Leningrad in honor of the resistance it made famous:

Beanpole is my second feature film. It is very important to me that my story takes place in 1945. My heroes, like the city they live in, are mangled by a horrible war. They live in a city that has endured one of the worst sieges in the history of warfare. This is a story about them and about people they meet in Leningrad, the obstacles that they have to overcome and the way they are treated by society. They are psychologically crippled by the war and it will take time for them to learn to live their normal lives.

I am interested in the fates of women and especially women who fought in the Second World War. According to data, this was the war with the highest participation of women. As an author, I am interested in finding an answer to the question: what happens to a person who is supposed to give life after she passes through the trials of war?

January 25, 2020

Color Out of Space

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

Based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, “Color Out of Space” opened yesterday at the IFC Center in Manhattan and the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. It was directed and co-written by Richard Stanley, a relative of the man who said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” The film stars Nicholas Cage as Nathan Gardner, the head of a household that goes off its rocker after a small meteorite lands near their rural home.

Unlike the more typical space invasion movie that pits such a family against little green men with ray guns, the only threat to their well-being is the odd clouds of colored light that have begun appearing nearby. They have the effect of making food taste weird and inducing strange behavior in human beings, such as Mrs. Gardner slicing off her fingers while dicing carrots. It also makes their pet dog, plants, and mother nature in general go off-kilter as well.

Cage, who is—as you must know by now—America’s greatest actor turns in a scenery-chewing performance as a husband who ignores his children’s warnings that things are getting weird. Even as the family starts behaving like the Texas chainsaw murderer’s worst nightmare and flowers start growing that look like they were painted by Salvador Dali on LSD, he soldiers on.

Something told me that he was cast as Nathan Gardner after his command performance in “Mandy”, a brilliant 2019 film that had him on a one-man, battle-ax wielding, vendetta against a Charles Manson-like cult after they kill his wife. Both films come off the assembly line of SpectreVision, a studio founded in 2010 by Hobbit star Elijah Wood “a home for creator-driven projects that test the boundaries of the genre space”, according to the press notes. In addition to these two vehicles for Cage, SpectreVision also produced “Daniel Isn’t Real”, another mind-blowing horror movie.

If you want to read the short story that the film is based on, go to the H.P. Lovecraft website. Lovecraft, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island from 1890 to 1937, was the Stephen King of his day. Although he never attained King’s popularity, there is a good chance that people will be reading his works a thousand years from now (that is, of course, if capitalism hasn’t destroyed the planet.) Just consider how his short story begins:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.

The old folk have gone away, and foreigners do not like to live there. French-Canadians have tried it, Italians have tried it, and the Poles have come and departed. It is not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined. The place is not good for the imagination, and does not bring restful dreams at night. It must be this which keeps the foreigners away, for old Ammi Pierce has never told them of anything he recalls from the strange days. Ammi, whose head has been a little queer for years, is the only one who still remains, or who ever talks of the strange days; and he dares to do this because his house is so near the open fields and the travelled roads around Arkham.

Who knows where the film industry would be without H.P. Lovecraft? He has 204 credits as writer, including such gems as “Re-Animator” and “Cthulhu”. Although it is beyond the scope of this review to describe the writer in all his complexity, suffice it to say that he was strongly influenced by Oswald Spengler and obsessed with the idea that the barbarians are knocking at the gate. Like Spengler, he was a racist. Wikipedia reports that in an early poem, the 1912 “On the Creation of Niggers”, Lovecraft describes black people not as human but as “beast[s] … in semi-human figure, filled with vice.”

Having seen a number of films based on his works, I can happily report that this is not reflected in them. He is part of a long tradition of writers who reflect the dark night of the American soul with Edgar Allen Poe, being acknowledged by him as a major influence. As for King, I’ll let him speak for himself:

“Now that time has given us some perspective on his work,” says Stephen King, “I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” Around 1960 a young Stephen King came across an old paperback edition of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear and Other Stories . It was a decisive moment for today’s pre-eminent horror writer. “Lovecraft. . . opened the way for me,” writes King, “as he had done for others before me…. it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

 

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