Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 27, 2019

Joseph Brant: the Mohawk who fought with the British against George Washington

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

I was astounded to learn in Allen Young’s memoir that Sullivan County, which was the heart of the Borscht Belt where we both grew up, was named after General John Sullivan who was directed by George Washington to annihilate Mohawk villages for supporting the British. The Mohawk were led by Joseph Brant, whose birthname was Thayendanegea.

The Mohawk were part of the Iroquois confederation that included the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Tuscarora, the Oneida and Cayuga. The failure of the six nations to reach an agreement about supporting the British led to strife and the eventual collapse of a confederation that Benjamin Franklin lauded as a model that the colonists could emulate after becoming independent. Despite the use of the term “Ignorant Savages” that was meant more as a dig at his colleagues, it was clear that Franklin considered the Iroquois to have achieved a model state, even if on a small scale:

It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.

Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book in 1877 titled “Ancient Society” that also viewed the Iroquois confederation positively. His work had a major influence on Frederick Engels who cited it at length in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Although he did not use the term, he was describing what is commonly known as “primitive communism” and taken as proof by Marxists that humanity can live in a classless society:

No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

My interest in the indigenous peoples of New York State was kindled initially by learning that the Munsee Indians were dominant all through the Catskills. Since I have begun a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills”, I was committed to telling their story. After I learned that my home county was named after a military officer who ethnically cleansed the state of Mohawks, I decided to look more deeply into their story as well, even if technically speaking they were to the north of the Catskills.

Since my film is both a series of interviews and a collage of pre-existing films, including “Last of the Mohicans” that did feature a tribe native to the Catskills, I decided to track down any films about Joseph Brant. I was able to discover the two above and was not surprised to discover that both are deeply flawed but worth watching.

“Divided Loyalties” is by far more grounded in Joseph Brant’s real history and the internecine divisions within the Indians, the British and the colonists. Essentially, Brant threw in his lot with the British because the colonists were far more of an immediate threat to Mohawk interests. As occurred throughout the New World, settlers impinged on native lands, even when a treaty should have protected their claims. In 1768, the Iroquois and the British signed a treaty at Fort Stanwix that would protect the Six Nations territory. Sir William Johnson, an Irish official of the Crown assigned to Indian affairs, was instrumental in drafting the treaty that met the expectations of the Indians—at least based on the wording. Johnson was the common-law husband of Joseph Brant’s sister Molly and sympathetic to Iroquois interests, even to the point of learning the Mohawk language and customs. In both films, he is a major character and the relationship between Brant and Johnson drives the narrative forward.

The British exploitation of the Mohawks as a military asset is reminiscent of Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment. Dunmore promised to free any slave who fought for the Crown. In a 2013 post, I cited Gary B. Nash, a “revisionist” whose take on the American war of independence is decidedly devoid of the patriotic junk we all learned in high school and that the Communist Party sadly dispensed when Earl Browder was the CPUSA’s chairman and infamous for declaring that Communism was 20th century Americanism:

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

It is clear from both films that the British were unreliable allies. They did little to protect the Six Nations from settler encroachment and likely would have allowed it to continue if they had defeated George Washington. That being said, the Mohawk had every reason to ally with the British who never were as open about killing indigenous people as the Founding Fathers.

Don’t ever forget what Thomas Jefferson, whose name adorned the CPUSA’s school for many years in New York, said: “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Meanwhile, George Washington’s orders to General Sullivan included this: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

And even Ben Franklin, who extolled the democratic character of the Iroquois confederacy, came up with this in his autobiography: “If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.”

April 26, 2019

The Biggest Little Farm; Lobster War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,farming,Film,water — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 26, 2019

Two new documentaries tackle the all-important question of our age, namely how humanity and nature can co-exist in a period of insurmountable capitalist contradiction, especially when humanity takes the form of small businesspeople hoping to exploit natural resources under duress.

Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. (Nationwide screening info is here.)

Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

Utterly indifferent to ecological values, the lobster fishermen depicted in Bullfrog Film’s “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds” are family and village-oriented. As long as they can haul in the valuable crustaceans and keep themselves and their respective towns in Maine and Canada prosperous, nothing much else matters. Not being able to see outside the box, they symbolize the short-term mindset of the ruling class. If lobsters become extinct because of unsustainable practices, the fishermen might turn to other profitable marine life. But when all animals become extinct except for rodents, pigeons and cockroaches, homo sapiens will be next in line.

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April 19, 2019

Instant Dreams; Be Natural

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:27 pm

Just by coincidence, two new documentaries do justice to two important but neglected figures in photography and motion pictures. “Instant Dreams”, which opens today at the Village East in New York and next Friday at the Laemmle in L.A., is tribute to the Polaroid camera that has been superseded by digital cameras, even if the question of whether newer technology is really superior to an older one artistically. In many ways, despite the convenience of CD’s, vinyl sounds better since analog is closer to the way we actually perceive reality. “Be Natural: the Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché”, which opens at the Laemmle today and at the IFC in New York next Friday, is a loving and inspired tribute to the first female director in history. Executive produced by Robert Redford and Jodie Foster (who also narrates), it establishes her as a major influence on film art with geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock counting her as an important influence. If you appreciate photographic art and film aesthetics, these two documentaries are well worth your time.

“Instant Dreams” begins with Edward Land, the father of Polaroid technology, walking through a vast warehouse ruminating on the breakthrough his camera represents. Pulling a wallet sized Polaroid camera out of his raincoat, he asserts that this camera will allow you to capture every eventful moment in your daily life. Although it seems rather quaint to hear this now, it must be stressed that a billion Polaroid cameras were sold in their heyday, including to me who appreciated their ability to take photos that could be put immediately into the hands of Nicaraguans.

The film focuses on three people for whom the camera is indispensable, even if the instant film it relies on are growing scarcer and scarcer.

Working at Polaroid from 1977 until the company folded, MIT-educated organic chemist Stephen Herchen worked closely with Edward Land as chief technology officer. When the film begins, he is bidding goodbye to his wife as he sets off to Germany to reverse engineer Polaroid film to make it available again to people who own Polaroid cameras. He is very much the counterpart of people who have launched new boutique vinyl LP companies to satisfy the needs of people like me who own turntables.

Stefanie Schneider is one of the photographers who continues to work with a Polaroid. Indifferent to “leading edge” technology, she actually prefers to use expired Polaroid film since the distortions they impart become part of the art. She refers to a Japanese word for imperfection that has a loaded meaning. It is only by seeing the imperfect that we can develop a true appreciation for perfection. In 2014, she constructed an art piece titled “29 Palm, CA” that explored the dreams and fantasies of people living in a trailer community in the California desert. We see her using her camera taking shots of the desert landscapes around her as well as several ethereally beautiful women who act out their fantasies before her camera.

Finally, there is Christopher Bonanos, the author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” who is best equipped as an editor of culture and technology stories at New York Magazine. He has many insights about what made the Polaroid so special, including its ability to create a bond between strangers. When you take a photo of one, there is always that minute or so until the picture emerges when a conversation can crop up.

“Instant Dreams” is the first film made by Willem Baptist, a Dutch director who explained why he made the film in the press notes:

What is it that makes Polaroid photo’s so special? First there is the remarkable process. Then there is the image with its unpredictable colors, unusual frame, the atmosphere of the image. A captured reality that seems more special than real life, and immediately becomes a treasured memory. That there’s only one copy of it enhances the feeling of authenticity. A Polaroid photo is infused with an air of artistry and mystery.

As a filmmaker, I am always searching for that intangible magical feeling. I struggled for a long time with the digital images I had to work with and tried various ways to alter them into something else so they wouldn’t be that digital. Maybe it’s because I have the experience of shooting short films on S16mm celluloid. Gradually I realized that these feelings weren’t some sort of nostalgia or that it was just a filmmaker’s thing. Millions of people give their iPhone photos a filtered look with apps such as Instagram, as if reality just doesn’t speak enough to our imagination.

Born in 1873, Alice Guy-Blaché trained to be a secretary, a job that was deemed suitable for middle-class women at that time. After being hired at Gaumont Studios in Paris by Léon Gaumont, one of the partners of an early film studio that competed with the Lumière brothers, she figured out the film business quickly enough to make a convincing case that she could make them herself. In no time at all, she began making films that were utterly unlike typical fare of those days. To start with, her watchword was “Be Natural”, an instruction that went against the grain of histrionics typical of most silent films. Also, she was an open feminist who had the audacity to make a film titled “The Consequences of Feminism” in 1906 that depicted a world in which women were sexually aggressive and men stayed at home doing housework.

A decade later she made “Shall The Parents Decide” that tackled sexual inequality and reproductive rights. Co-written by Guy-Blaché and activist Rose Pastor Stokes, it was supposed to be screened at the opening of a Margaret Sanger clinic but was preempted by Sanger’s arrest.

The film has generous excerpts from her films that have a particular comic flair that will remind you of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Alice Guy-Blaché was a great genius and director Pamela B. Green deserves applause for rescuing her from obscurity.

March 29, 2019

Screwball

Filed under: drugs,Film,sports — louisproyect @ 7:48 pm

Opening today at Cinema Village is a documentary titled “Screwball” that takes a light-hearted look at the performance enhancement drug (PED) scandal that led to the suspension of Alex Rodriguez in 2014. Most of the film consists of interviews with two of the principals: his supplier Tony Bosch reminiscing about the affair and a naïf named Porter Fischer, who introduces himself as a professional tanner and who purloined files from Bosch’s Biogenesis Labs office in order to pressure Bosch into repaying a $4000 debt. As a comic device, there are reenactments of the various players in this scandal by young boys who appear in baseball or business suits, fake mustaches, fake tattoos, etc., and whose dialog is supplied by adult voiceover. All of this takes place with a film score that sounds like the accompaniment to a slapstick comedy, which in many ways it is. Despite the comic intent, there are some genuinely dark aspects including the revelation that Bosch went to prison not so much for supplying A-Rod and other professional baseball players but for supplying PED’s to high school kids who needed them to compete at  a level necessary to get an athletic scholarship. With Bosch often injecting them with their parents’ consent, you get a feel for the generally depraved character of athletic competition, especially in Florida, where Biogenesis was based.

The first wave of steroid abuse was connected with their fairly open use in the Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire era. After they and other players were outed by José Canseco in his 2005 book “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big”, it became too risky to use PEDs openly since drug tests were routinely required. Tony Bosch, a Cuban-American living in south Florida who operated an anti-aging clinic, had devised a protocol that kept drugs beneath the level that could be detected in a urine sample. Once the word got out, players flocked to his clinic to get a leg up on other players, especially fading stars like Alex Rodriguez.

Bosch wore a lab coat and a stethoscope in his office to give the impression that he was a physician. His degree came from a medical school in Belize that was not even up to the level of a diploma mill. Tony Bosch was the slacker son of a licensed physician who made himself available to his son for signing prescriptions. As shady as his father was, he was not nearly as criminal as his cousin Orlando Bosch, who in addition to being a physician was a Cuban counter-revolutionary who bombed a Cuban civilian airliner, killing all 73 people on board.

As his business expanded, Bosch partnered with a tanning salon chain run by two brothers. The idea was to draw people in who could get fitter and tanner under the same roof. This was Florida, after all.

The real question is how such a business could get a foothold in Florida. In my review of “American Relapse”, I pointed out that drug rehab centers in Florida do not require a physician to be on staff. This is the true of anti-aging clinics, as well. They will inject steroids into anybody’s arm as long as they have cash on the barrel.

This is what you’d expect in a state with a governor like Rick Scott.

Gov. Rick Scott took responsibility? No, he took $300 million | Randy Schultz

South Florida Sun Sentinel

October 2, 2018

By Randy Schultz

When the federal investigation of Rick Scott’s former hospital company became public in 1997, the board of Columbia/HCA forced him out. Scott left with $300 million in stock, a $5.1 million severance and a $950,000-per-year consulting contract for five years.

What does Scott call that? Taking responsibility.

The governor’s new Senate campaign ad again seeks to rewrite the history of Columbia/HCA, which Scott founded in 1987 and led as CEO. Indeed, the ad is titled “responsibility” and compares Scott’s actions to those of “strong leaders.”

In its settlement with the government, the company admitted to 14 felonies related to fraudulent billing and practices. Most happened under Scott’s leadership.

Read full article

March 22, 2019

Tigerland

Filed under: animal rights,Film — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

As the title suggests, “Tigerland” is a documentary about the efforts in both Far Eastern Russia and Bengal, India to prevent tigers from going extinct. It opens today at the Monica Center in Los Angeles and at the Cinema Village in N.Y. next Friday. It will also be available as VOD on the Discovery cable network tomorrow. As a genre, it resembles what you would see on channels like Discovery, Smithsonian and National Geographic. However you decide to see this beautiful but worrisome film, it is worth your time because it gets to the heart of the species extinction that confronts humanity today. As a symbol of wilderness, probably nothing can top the tiger, a creature that inspired William Blake to write:

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

At the start of the 20th century, there were 100,000 tigers living across Asia. Today there are less than 4,000. The same socio-economic forces that are acting to exterminate them are arrayed against us. The loss of forests across Asia not only threatens tigers but us as well since forests absorb greenhouse gases. With people like Modi, Putin, Trump and Jinping in control of natural resources, including tigers, our days are numbered.

When the film starts, you do a double-take since it shows a tiger walking through deep snow. After a minute or so, you learn that this is a Siberian Tiger—one of the few of the species living outside of India and Southeast Asia. Pavel Fomenko operates a tiger preserve in the Bikin National Park funded by the World Wildlife Fund.

In the years following the collapse of Communism, poaching became a major problem in Russia. Since there is a market for tiger organs as sexual potency aids in China, just as there is for rhino horns, tiger numbers fell precipitously. The film does not identify Putin as helping to reverse this trend but if he was, that’s one good deed in his sorry life.

Much of the film is devoted to Fomenko’s team trying to track down two tiger cubs who were separated from their mother. She was taken into the tiger preserve after attacking and eating a couple of dogs in a Bikin village. They finally succeeded in reuniting the family but nearly at the cost of Fomenko losing his life. When tending to the cubs, the mother smashed through a fence and mauled him badly. Fomenko said: “The tigress is not to blame. This is typical behavior of a predator defending its offspring.” If there is any hope for Russia, a country even more warped by consumerist appetites than the USA, it is that there are people like Pavel Fomenko living there.

The Bengal segment of the film features conservationists Amit Sankhala and Jai Bhati, the grandson and great-grandson of the original “Tiger Man of India,” Kailash Sankhala. Kailash Sankhala was motivated to campaign for the protection of tigers when he became Director of the Delhi Zoological Park in 1965. Appalled by the willingness of the government to promote hunting safaris that were drastically reducing the number of tigers, he took on the political elite that was fixated on “development”. This meant turning the habitat of tigers into plantations or mining sites, while coveting the foreign currency pouring in through big game hunting expeditions. Fortunately, he found a sympathetic ear in Indira Gandhi who pushed through legislation banning the killing of tigers.

It should be mentioned that the Indian gentry was just as bad. It was as addicted to killing tigers as Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were to killing animals at the top of the food chain. One of the more disgusting historical footage seen in the film is an Indian hunting expedition that culminates in the killing of a tiger. As the creature lies dying on the ground, it is shot several more times at close range and topped off by the elephant ridden by some Mughal wannabe stomping on the head of the dead tiger. Seeing this, I was reminded of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I had a Rocket Launcher”:

I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate
I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states
And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate

The film was directed by Ross Kauffman, who won an Academy Award for “Born into Brothels” and produced by another Academy Awardee Fisher Stevens, who helped make “The Cove” possible. “The Cove” was a powerful documentary that helped to put a stop to killing whales for Japanese grocery stores. Let’s hope that “Tigerland” will help shore up the resistance to killing tigers.

 

March 15, 2019

Ben is Back; Beautiful Boy

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 15, 2019

Given the enormity of the drug crisis in the USA, particularly centered on opioid overdoses that are the largest cause of death of people under the age of 50, it was inevitable that Hollywood would begin to produce “problem” movies such as “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”. It also just as inevitable that such films would be based on the suffering of well-to-do families and suffused with clichés.

“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the matriarch of a generally happy family eagerly awaiting Christmas day, the happiest time of the year, especially if you live in the suburbs and have lots of money to lavish on presents. Pulling into her driveway with a carload of gifts to place under the Christmas tree, she sees the ghost of Christmas past, namely her college-aged son Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has cut short his stay in a drug rehabilitation facility to return home from the holidays.

The entire family treats Ben as if he was the scariest ghost showing up in Scrooge’s bedroom. He is there not to remind them of their lifetime of sins but the pain he has visited on them in the past as an opioid addict. Hoping to enjoy a happy time with the family, he is put on the defensive by his mom’s insistence that he take a drug test in the upstairs bathroom right off the bat. As he pees into a bottle, she stands behind him with her arms folded to make sure he is not turning in a fake sample.

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March 8, 2019

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2019

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 8, 2019

Beginning next Friday on March 15th and lasting until March 21st, the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York will be offering a welcome respite from the violent, comic-book, escapist, and misogynist films appearing in your local cineplex. I have been covering the festival each year since it began in 2015 and am happy to report that this year’s offerings remain at the high level founder Nora Armani has maintained over the past four years.

SR’s mission statement states that it “focuses on socially relevant film content, and human interest stories that raise awareness to social problems and offer positive solutions through the powerful medium of cinema. SR believes that through raised awareness, expanded knowledge about diverse cultures, and the human condition as a whole, it is possible to create a better world free of violence, hate, and crime.”

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March 7, 2019

3 Faces

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

For those who appreciate the kinds of films that get recommended here, there is very good news. Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York. I consider Panahi to be the greatest living filmmaker and this his greatest film. He is not only a master filmmaker, he is also the main voice of the Iranian democratic movement working in the arts. For his outspoken defense of the Green Movement and the democratic rights in general of Iranians, he was arrested for making propaganda against the Islamic Republic in 2010 and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Additionally, he was banned from making films for 20 years and from giving interviews to foreign media.

In a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, he continued to make films under very difficult circumstances including the 2011 This Is Not a Film that was shot on a digital camera in his home during his house arrest. With “3 Faces”, he has returned to the form that made him famous. Like his 1995 premiere film “White Balloon”, it is an affectionate look at traditional society in Iran but like his 2003 “Crimson Gold” and the much sharper 2006 “Offside”, it contains his ongoing critique of Iranian society. If in the past he targeted the Islamic morality state apparatus, in this new film his focus is on the age-old patriarchal norms of the countryside that help to keep the clerics in power just as is the case in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. What gives “3 Faces” its power is the ambivalence Panahi feels toward traditional society. It inspires his art at the same time it underpins a social and political system that tried to ban his films.

The film begins with Jafar Panahi in the driver’s seat of a car playing himself, while in the front seat next to him sits a well-known actress named Behnaz Jafari who is also playing herself. As they head down a highway at night, Jafari is watching a video that was sent to Panahi but really intended for her eyes. A young woman in a remote village in the Azeri region of Iran has decided that her family’s refusal to allow her to go to a conservatory in Tehran makes life not worth living. We watch her advance toward a noose hanging from a branch in a cave, placing it around her neck, and finally jumping to her death or so it would seem.

Panahi and Jafari are driving toward the village of Saran in the East Azerbaijan Province to discover whether the aspiring actress named Marziyeh Rezaei (also played by herself) is really dead or whether she has faked a suicide to get the attention of the two powerful celebrities.

Most of the dialog in the film, except that between the three principals identified above, is in the Azeri dialect of the Turkish language that only Panahi and Marziyeh understand. Much of the film consists of Panahi chatting with elderly residents of Saran who are obviously nonprofessionals and likely played by the actual men and women living there.

When Panahi and Jafari stroll through the local cemetery to see if they can find a fresh grave for Marziyeh, they are startled to see an octogenarian woman lying in an open grave with a candle in her hands. She explains that she is rehearsing for her funeral but gives no indication that her death is imminent. The candle is meant to keep snakes away at night, a scourge that God visits on the wicked. Are you wicked, Panahi asks, you seem to be without sin. She replies that god only knows.

Another old-timer, a man in his 70s by the looks of his grizzled face, has a chit-chat with Jafari late at night in the village. He has come back from his new son’s circumcision with the boy’s foreskin in a small cloth sack. A wide-eyed Jafari asks what he will do with it. He explains that if you bury a boy’s foreskin near a penitentiary, he will grow up to be a criminal but if you bury it near a university, he will grow up to be a doctor or an engineer. Like Panahi and the old woman in the open grave, she takes it all in without scoffing. Later she presents the foreskin and an accompanying letter to Panahi from the old man that he should present to an actor from the golden age of Iranian film. When Jafari tells him that the actor is out of the country, he asks if Panahi can present it to him the next time he is traveling abroad. She explains that the Panahi is not permitted to leave Iran and the actor is not permitted to enter the country. This is about as close as the film comes to commenting on the repressive norms of the Islamic Republic.

The film wrestles with the dichotomy between traditional values and the urgent need for modernization. An elder tells the famous director and actress that Marziyeh was “empty-headed” and that acting was not going to be of much use in a village that is desperately in need of doctors. Look around, he tells them. There is a satellite dish on every house that allows them to see Jafari’s TV shows but no place to go if you become ill.

In a way, the real star of the film is the village of Saran itself that is nestled on a mountaintop and whose homes and streets look pretty much like they looked a century ago. If Iran ever becomes a thoroughly modern republic based on the right of women to live fulfilled lives, there has to be a way for the solidarity of village life to continue. As someone who grew up in a village of 500 people nestled in the Catskill Mountains, Saran resonates with me. My village has been savaged by the collapse of the tourist industry but perhaps Iran can mediate between tradition and modernity in the future. What it certainly doesn’t need is a bullying imperialist power like the USA to foist its own warped ideas about “modernity” on a people who have one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.

 

March 1, 2019

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People

Filed under: Film,journalism — louisproyect @ 10:31 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in NY and at the Laemmle a week from now is the documentary “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People” that despite being made before 2016 (based on the typical schedule of film productions) could not be more relevant to the current crisis. With the battle between Donald Trump and the “mainstream media” over “fake news”, a look at the life and career of Joseph Pulitzer will give us the perspective we need on how newspapers functioned in the broader fabric of American society during the Gilded Age. He symbolized the ultimate contradictions of the capitalist press. Determined to boost circulation, he tailed after William Randolph Hearst’s “fake news” during the Spanish-American War and lived to regret it. If “click bait” is the bête noire of electronic media, so was the circulation wars between Pulitzer’s The World and Hearst’s The Journal. For those who are nostalgic for the good old days of responsible reporting, seeing this excellent documentary will remind you how much they have in common with the bad new days we are living through now.

Born in 1847, Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian Jew who grew up in dire poverty. Of his 8 siblings, only one other grew into adulthood. His father died when he was 11, leaving the family to its own devices. At the age of 17, he took advantage of a recruitment offer from the Union army. Since Lincoln had a shortage of troops as a result of rich northerners paying bribes to keep their kids from serving, immigrants would get tickets to America to replenish the ranks.

Managing to stay alive, Pulitzer found himself unemployed at the end of the war but resourceful enough to “Go West, Young Man” as Horace Greeley put it. He ended up in St. Louis and found himself playing chess with Carl Schurz, the German revolutionary who was a “Forty-Eighter” just like Pulitzer’s uncles. That in itself might have recommended him to Schurz but the older and highly successful man was far more impressed with the beating he took at the chessboard from the youth. Seeing him as a gifted individual, he hired him to work at his newspaper. Rising rapidly to the top, Pulitzer amassed enough money to buy what would become the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper that the family owned until 2005.

As ambitious as he was shrewd, Pulitzer decided that New York was the place to go if you wanted to be in the media “big leagues”. Leveraging the money he made in St. Louis, Pulitzer bought The World and turned into the kind of newspaper that he pioneered, namely a tabloid-style voice that took up the cause of poor people and that held the feet of the rich to the fire.

I say “tabloid-style” because it was a full-page newspaper like the NY Times rather than the NY Post or the NY Daily News. However, the emphasis was on attention-getting stories about corruption, Gilded Age plutocracy of the sort symbolized by Stephen Schwarzman today, and “human interest” stories about the kinds of people who paid a penny each day to read The World.

A typical circulation ploy by Pulitzer was to publicize the need for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was being put together during the paper’s rise to the top. He called on New Yorkers to contribute to a fund to pay for the pedestal and who would be recognized for their contribution by being named in an Honor Roll in the paper. He made sure to update the Honor Roll only several days after the contribution was made (usually between a penny and a dime) in order to encourage those making a donation to buy the paper each day until their name showed up.

In 1895, Harvard graduate and rich kid William Randolph Hearst came to New York from California and launched the Journal. Showing the kind of mercilessness depicted in his fictional version in “Citizen Kane”, he began poaching reporters and editors from the World. In addition, he adopted the tabloid style of the World that was expressed above all by Hogan’s Alley, a comic strip that featured a bald kid in a yellow nightshirt nicknamed The Yellow Kid. After Hearst lured the author to the Journal, he escalated the sensationalism to the point of caricature, so much so that the term “yellow journalism” encompassed both newspaper.

When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, Hearst featured the same kinds of articles that led up to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and LBJ’s war in Vietnam before that. “Fake news” would be an understatement. Under pressure to sell newspapers, Pulitzer began publishing the same kind of “yellow journalism” but would live to regret it. Close to his death, he featured investigative reporting on President Theodore Roosevelt’s virtual colonization of Panama that was calculated to enrich investors in the new canal. Roosevelt was so incensed that he sued Pulitzer for libel but the Supreme Court ruled in Pulitzer’s favor in the interest of freedom of the press.

The film benefits from interviews with academic historians and media professors but above all one interviewee stands out, namely Nicholson Baker, the author of the WII revisionist (after the fashion of Howard Zinn) “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization”. In 1999, Baker discovered that the British Library had plans to junk more than 2,000 bound volumes of American newspapers, including hundreds of editions of Joseph Pulitzer’s ground-breaking color pages of the New York World. Baker spent $26,000 of his own money to rescue the archives and the film would not be nearly so brilliant without their images.

Most of us know the name Pulitzer through the annual prizes bestowed in his name. He funded the awards and the Columbia Journalism School as well. He was a complex man who deserved the complex treatment he received in this film. If newspapers are in bad shape today, we can at least be grateful that documentary film is in its golden age.

February 27, 2019

Styx

Filed under: Film,refugees — louisproyect @ 8:23 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, “Styx” is an unnervingly grim drama that strips the refugee crisis down to its bare essentials.

Rike, an attractive female doctor from Germany in her mid to late 30s departs from Gibraltar on her sailing yacht destined for a vacation on Ascension Island, which is in the south Atlantic about a thousand miles off the African coast. An independent woman strong enough to pilot her own boat, she wants to see the island that Charles Darwin encouraged England to colonize as a botanical garden. En route to the island, she leafs through a coffee-table book about the island that demonstrates her affinity for off-the-beaten track paradises.

Little does she anticipate that a few days into her trans-oceanic crossing, she will not find a paradise but a hell, as the title of the film indicates. The river Styx in Greek mythology was the boundary between the underworld and the world of the living, in which Rike dwells. The underworld in this instance was a leaking and incapacitated fishing trawler adrift in the ocean filled with sick and starving refugees that she spots on the horizon. Reacting as would anybody sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, she sails toward the trawler but stops a few hundred feet as a number of the desperate refugees begin swimming toward her yacht. She knows that her craft is too small to save them all but she does carry aboard a young African boy who is barely conscious despite having swum near her boat—or perhaps semi-conscious because of the effort it took.

After nursing the boy back to a reasonably healthy state, she is caught between the underworld of the refugees and the living world of her well-off fellow European citizens, including the Coast Guard officials who warn her to stay away from the trawler in order to avoid “chaos”. It becomes obvious before long that despite the wealth of the Europeans, they are the ones who symbolize the condemned sinners of both Greek and Christian mythology.

“Styx” is hardly what I would call entertainment. For that, you are better off going to see “A Star is Born” or “Crazy Rich Asians”. Just remember to leave your brain at home.

In the press notes, Wolfgang Fischer, the director of this powerful English-language film, was asked “Your film presents a moral dilemma . . . could we all find ourselves in the same situation as the protagonist?”

He replied:

I absolutely believe we could. To take an everyday example: suppose someone is attacked next to us in the subway. We didn’t choose this situation, but we need to act. Looking away is also a form of action. We need to decide. This can happen to every one of us. It is something universal. It changes one’s life. As an emergency physician, Rike knows the rule: to first protect your own life. She follows this rule. But of course the question remains whether she made the right decision.

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