Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2020

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Starting tomorrow, a digital restoration of Bert Stern’s documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” will be available as Kino-Lorber Virtual Cinema. It captures the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which at the time was one of the most heralded venues for both jazz and non-jazz artists. Stern was not a documentary filmmaker. His claim to fame was as a fashion and portrait photographer, best known for his 1962 series of photos of Marilyn Monroe that became known as The Last Sitting. Decades ago, I saw a selection of the Monroe photos at a NY gallery with my old friend Laura Kronenberg that left an indelible impression. What makes his 1959 documentary a classic, besides the music, was a vivid portrait of Newport, Rhode Island at a time when the USA looked far different than it does today.

Besides seeing handsome young people applauding the musicians and dancing in the aisles, we see a yacht regatta that took place the same day. While I was a bit annoyed when footage of the yachts was superimposed over a Thelonious Monk performance at the festival, it is easy to understand why the average film-goer might not have complained. I’d rather have preferred seeing Monk’s fingers dancing across the keyboard but the boats gave the film the visual variety a straightforward concert recording might have lacked.

In a NY Review of Books blog post, J. Hoberman recommends the film with qualifications:

The music is mainstream even by 1958 standards (Stern did not deign to document Miles Davis or John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk is cut to a bare minimum). Still, Jazz on a Summer’s Day does conjure a peaceable kingdom—young and old, black and white, hip and square, rich and less rich—presided over by the most benign of founding fathers, Louis Armstrong, whose influence is evident on virtually all of the artists.

I am not sure how much J. Hoberman knows about jazz but, while I would have loved to see Davis and Coltrane, there are gem performances in the documentary that do capture important trends in the mid to late 1950s, starting with a fabulous performance of Jimmy Giuffre’s tune “The Train and the River”, performed by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with him on alto sax, Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Jim Hall on guitar. You can see their performance below:

Giuffre, Dave Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and even Miles Davis were trying to move past bebop conventions at the time. This meant using unconventional combinations of instruments such as exemplified by Giuffre’s trio. It also meant experimenting with new rhythms and harmonies such as Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, an adaptation of  of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turka”.

To some extent this post-bebop style became identified as West Coast jazz since many of the practitioners like Shelly Manne were based in California. It also was sometimes dismissed as white jazz since in fact Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz were white.

But when you hear the Chico Hamilton quintet’s performance at the festival, you’ll understand how this reductionism does not really apply. Chico Hamilton was African-American as was Eric Dolphy, who while being part of the band, is not heard during their performance. Like Giuffre, Hamilton used a guitarist rather than a pianist to provide underlying harmonies. He also featured a cellist rather than a bass player, which gives the music a more intimate feel. Hamilton’s quintet was one of the most forward-looking bands of the period and we are blessed to see it in performance.

Festival impresario George Wien always made sure to feature non-jazz artists like Mahalia Jackson, whose gospel songs conclude the film. He also included Chuck Berry of all people, whose connections to jazz were even more distant than Jackson’s. However, in one of the more intriguing moments in the film, we see him playing “Sweet Little Sixteen” with none other than Jo Jones on the drums. Jones was Count Basie’s drummer and the last person I’d expect to be see backing up Chuck Berry. What’s even more unexpected is a wild solo that Pee Wee Russell takes on clarinet with Chuck Berry looking on transfixed. Pee Wee looks even more demented than Chuck and that ain’t easy. Pee Wee Russell was one of the more varied talents in jazz for well over five decades. He not only played alongside Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke in the 20s, his 1963 album “Ask Me Now” including tunes by Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. (I should mention that Russell was white.)

The Newport Jazz Festival was launched in 1954 with funding by Elaine Lorillard and her husband Louis, an heir to the Lorillard fortune that rested on tobacco. The 1956 film “High Society” depicted their romance with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in the leading roles. Louis Lorillard was a descendant of Robert Livingston, first Lord of Livingston Manor that a nearby village near my upstate NY home town was apparently named after. He was also descended from Pierre Lorillard, who founded the P. Lorillard tobacco company in 1760. Long before tobacco money helped found the Newport Jazz Festival, it was sponsoring the Paul Whiteman and Artie Shaw bands on the radio.

Elaine Lorillard got the idea for starting the festival through discussions she had with John Hammond, a top executive of Columbia Records who was sympathetic to the Communist Party in the 1930s. The fruit of their collaboration was a festival that incorporated the cultural and social ethos of New Deal liberalism that died many years ago. If you watch “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”, you’ll get a feel for the optimism of the time when American prosperity benefited all Americans, of course excluding those with Black skin not blessed with Louis Armstrong or Mahalia Jackson’s talent.

August 7, 2020

Song Without a Name

Filed under: Film,Peru — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

 

Opening today as Virtual Cinema is a deliberately understated, black-and-white, art film titled “Song Without a Name”. Its potentially explosive theme is about the theft of new-born babies in Peru during the late 1980s in order to be sold on the adoption black market. Slowly paced and staying close to the historical record, it has little in common with Hollywood conventions. If Stephen Spielberg directed such a film, there would be danger lurking behind every corner, especially when an investigative reporter is told that the people running the baby-stealing ring are very dangerous. Whatever “Song Without a Name” lacks in dramatic impact, it more than makes for in authenticity.

Georgina and her husband Leo are expecting their first child. They live in a village in the highlands made up of fellow Quechuan Indians, who constitute the base of the Shining Path. Despite being poverty-stricken and without much hope for a better future, they eagerly await the infant’s birth. Each day they descend down a mountain into a nearby village where both make their livings from potatoes, the Incan food that the conquistadores brought back to Europe. Leo works for a wholesaler lugging bags of potatoes around and Georgina sells some in the local marketplace. The money they earn is barely enough to keep them alive, but revolutionary insurgency is the last thing on their mind. They are steeped in Quechuan rituals and only hope to enjoy the company of their first-born.

One day as Georgina is hawking potatoes, she hears a nearby radio advertising free medical care for expectant women. Without thinking through the ramifications of anything free in a country where the capitalist class treats indigenous people like slaves, she shows up at the clinic in labor. As they advertised, there’s no cost in delivering a baby girl. However, they don’t give her the infant as promised. Instead, they escort her out of the hospital and lock the door behind them. The next day the clinic is shut and the staff and her newborn disappeared.

Georgina tries to file a report with the cops but they are totally uncooperative, a function no doubt of them being on the take. Growing more and more desperate, she barges into the newsroom of a major newspaper and begs to speak to a journalist. When told that she needs a pass to get to first base with a reporter, she breaks down sobbing with the words “they stole my baby” pouring out of her mouth. A reporter named Pedro Campos is touched by her grief and takes her aside to get the story. The remainder of the film consists of him trying to get to the bottom of the baby-stealing ring. As I said, this is not a detective story. Instead, it is a portrait of two people playing different parts in a society that has been marked by savage inequality since the days of the conquistadores. He is a righteous man standing up to the rotten and corrupt elites who hope for Shining Path’s defeat. You might even say that Pizarro’s colonial conquest was made easier by the feudal-like system of the Incas that included human sacrifice.

This debut film was written and directed by Melina León, a Peruvian graduate of the Columbia University film school. She is the daughter of Ismael León, a journalist who helped to found La República in 1981, a newspaper that broke the baby-theft story. The training she received at Columbia helped her make a technical decision that put its stamp on the film’s texture. As this excerpt from a press notes interview would indicate, she was influenced by the minimalism of earlier filmmakers of art films rather than by Stephen Spielberg. Of course, the irony is that Hollywood has ground to a halt, while the art films and documentaries are flourishing under Virtual Cinema.

With the black & white and the 4:3 frame, the film develops a very formal austerity. What made you and Inti Briones (the DOP) choose this sober style? Did you have influences to guide you? We really wanted to see the world as our characters saw it, so we figured that we needed to trap them. A wide landscape didn’t seem appropriate for those days when we felt so constrained. Since our budget was so limited, we didn’t have much control over locations so we figured we’d better use the format to achieve this feeling of entrapment.

Also, we felt that we needed to use every possible resource to contribute to transport people to the 1980’s and of course 4:3 was the TV format in those days.

The choice of black & white comes from my memory of the photographs in the newspapers of the 1980’s. They were not printing in color yet.

Inti and I watched films by Béla Tarr and Andrey Zvyagintsev and found our inspiration and common ground. We also talked a lot about Yellow Earth by Chen Kaige – which was shot by Zhang Yimou – and about the films of Jia Zhangke.

 

Homage to Charles Bukowski

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 2:42 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 7, 2020

Among my favorite writers, Harvey Pekar and Charles Bukowski share an uncommon distinction. Despite having lowly jobs as a Cleveland veterans hospital file clerk and sorting mail in the post office, they received the highest accolades for their work. In a 1985 New York Times book review, David Rosenthal wrote that “Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s, and it is easy to see why.” As for Bukowski, Jean-Paul Sartre described him as “America’s greatest living poet today,” although his biographer Howard Sounes discounts that as a tale Bukowski circulated. As for me, I don’t need Sounes’s imprimatur to evaluate Bukowski’s literary merits. I regard him as one of our best writers of the past half-century, and the kind of writer that helped me keep me feeling less isolated in a mammon-worshiping nation. Writers who have held down regular jobs like Herman Melville on a whaling ship or Jack Kerouac as a railway brakeman are closer to our reality than those churned out on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop assembly line.

Charles Bukowski died in 1994, not from cirrhosis of the liver but leukemia. Well-known for his alcoholism, it surprised me that he made it to the age of 73. As was also the case with Pekar, it was like losing a friend. As I read all of Pekar’s comic books, I always made time to read a new Bukowski novel. Since both writers mined their workaday lives, disappointments, and loneliness for deeply affecting literature, you felt as close to them as if they were good friends. Moreover, once they became celebrities, you appreciated how ambivalent they were about such glory. Pekar refused to make any more appearances on the David Letterman show, even if it meant cutting into comic book sales.

Continue reading

August 3, 2020

Shanghai Triad

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Tomorrow, a digitally restored version of the 1995 “Shanghai Triad” will be available on Virtual Cinema. For a $10 rental, you get a chance to see a film directed by Zhang Yimou, widely regarded as China’s greatest director.

Set in Shanghai in 1930 and within the triad milieu (drug gangs originating in the Boxer Rebellion), this is not the same genre that Hong Kong studios routinely churned out in the 60s and 70s. Instead, the two primary characters have only a tangential relation to the  gangsters, who are mostly secondary. One is a 14-year old boy named Shuisheng, whose uncle has brought to Shanghai for a job with the Tang clan. Unlike most mafia movies, the boy is not being trained to be a hitman. Instead, he is a servant to the boss’s mistress Bijou, who treats him like dirt. The gang’s godfather is a Tang, just like Shuisheng and his uncle. Like the Sicilian mafia, family ties go a long way in guaranteeing loyalty.

Throughout the film, Shuisheng is a passive observer of the chaos all about him. Bijou is not only abusive toward him, she also is in the habit of telling off boss Tang, a man in his sixties who does on the beautiful but churlish young woman, who is played by Gong Li—generally regarded as China’s greatest actress.

On his first day of work serving Bijou, Shuisheng makes the mistake of bringing tea and cakes into her bedroom without knocking first. She snarls at his lack of servant skills. She orders him to go out again and start over. He must knock first, and, while he is at it, announce himself as Shuisheng the bumpkin. Bijou is a nightmarish diva who performs as a songstress in boss Tang’s nightclub. If you’re familiar with Zhang Yimou’s body of work, you’ll know that he is a sucker for spectacle. Except for “Not One Less”, a great film about a young schoolteacher in China’s hinterland, his films are feasts for the eyes and ears. When Bijou performs, it is like being treated to a Chinese version of a Busby Berkeley musical.

Toward the middle of the film, boss Tang begins to play a bigger role after a rival gang launches a bloody raid on his estate that results in the death of Shuisheng’s uncle and others in his retinue. In keeping with Zhang’s overall approach, we don’t even see the rival gangs in combat. His interest is mostly in the tangled relationship between the boss and his mistress, and hers with the young and mostly passive servant who speaks no more than 25 words in the entire film. His acting skills are displayed entirely through his facial expressions.

After the raid, Tang takes Bijou, Shuisheng and a small detachment of his lieutenants to a remote island with zero amenities. Upon their arrival, Bijou begins to complain bitterly about being bored. Perhaps being tired of the gangster life, she begins to spend more time with Shuisheng, and a widowed mother and her young daughter, the sole inhabitants of the island. They live primitive but satisfying lives unlike the murderous gangsters who interfere with their peaceful conditions like Edward G. Robinson’s gang in “Key Largo”. We soon learn that Bijou was once a bumpkin like them, as the ties between them grow. She tells Shuisheng that once they return to Shanghai, he has to break with the gang and return to the countryside or else he will end up with his uncle.

The climax of the film consists once again of a showdown between the two gangs seen earlier but also, once again, sans pyrotechnics. Zhang’s main interest is in showing how the brutal, feudal-like society of Chinese triads make those at the bottom of the chain vulnerable. Unlike the Hong Kong actions films of the 60s and 70s, as great as they were, “Shanghai Triad” leaves you with the conclusion that wiping them out was one of the great gains of the revolution made by Mao Zedong.

In the press notes, Zhang is asked “What’s at stake in this film? Is the film a warning to the Chinese people with regard to their increasingly materialistic lifestyle?” His reply:

Absolutely. This story is the first time I have depicted a life of luxury and material wealth. In effect, I just wanted to say to my countrymen and to others that there is something more important than power and mere material possessions. What counts most in life is man’s capacity for love and generosity. That is why I did not want to make a traditional Mafia film. To my mind, this film speaks up for important issues.

July 29, 2020

The Shadow of Violence

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Opening on Friday, July 31, “The Shadow of Violence” is noteworthy both as a film and as a turning-point in cinema since it will be the first film I’ve reviewed since March 13th that is opening in physical theaters rather than as VOD, or what they call “virtual cinema” (venues listed below).

Based on Joe Murtagh’s adaptation of Irish author Colin Barrett’s “Young Skins,” first-time director Nick Rowland has made a somber film about the plight of Douglas “Arm” Armstrong, an enforcer for an Irish drug gang based in the western Irish countryside. From the beginning of the film, you expect things to end predictably on a tragic note but stay tuned in to Arm out of compassion for a man trying to break the chains fate has cast.

Acclaimed as an amateur boxer, Arm found it hard to resist going on the payroll of the Devers brothers. For doing nothing much except beating people up, he had job security and enough money to live on. Unlike Italy, the USA, Mexico or Colombia, the drug trade in rural Ireland will not make you rich. The two kingpins of the Devers family might be better labeled as pawnpins with their ratty clothes and shabby homes. Whatever they lack in wealth, they more than make up for in viciousness.

Early on in the film, Arm and his partner Dympna, a nephew to the Devers, are dispatched to punish an old man who came to a party they threw. When there, he supposedly raped a young female guest. With what appears to be a total absence of police in the town, punishment is dealt out as if it were the Old West and like in the Old West, men, especially rustlers, get lynched.

Arm has little trouble beating the living daylights out of the old man but is dismayed to discover that the Devers brothers view that as only the prelude. They order Arm to kill him, specifically by throwing him over a cliff. Arm might be capable of beating someone up (although he seems to get no pleasure out of it) but he has never killed anybody before, except in an amateur fight. He felt terrible remorse over a ring accident, so much so that he never went pro. With that trauma in his past, he was not up to the task of killing someone in cold blood. Of course, the consequence of defying his bosses’ orders could be fatal.

If he didn’t have enough on his hands dealing with the Devers, he is in one skirmish after another with his ex-girlfriend Ursula and their autistic son. Arm loves the boy but has trouble getting through to him. When we see him lose patience with the child, we chalk that up as a moral deficit but at least give him credit for wanting to be part of his life. Since Ursula would rather see him disappear because of his job as a drug gang’s enforcer, he has to work extra hard to get time with his son.

Arm is played by Cosmo Jarvis, a brawny British actor who has the same handsome but menacing features as Dwayne Johnson. For most of the film, he is impassive.  In hot water with his bosses over his failure to carry out a hit and his ex-girlfriend for his low-life ways, his anguish becomes hard to mask. Nick Rowland does an excellent job drawing out top-rate performances from his actors. In the director’s notes, he states:

The world of THE SHADOW OF VIOLENCE is energetic, eccentric and beautiful as much as it is dark and threatening. It is a place where violence or laughter could erupt at any moment. I loved how the audience are propelled forward by the youthful energy and spirit of the central characters. Above all else, I wanted to take the audience on a deeply emotional journey, as we explore this brutal world through the eyes of our deeply vulnerable protagonist, as he grapples with his conscience and desire to do what is best for his son.

I’d say he has succeeded admirably.

“The Shadow of Violence” can be seen in the following venues:

CITY   THEATER

Sarasota: Burns Court

KC: Screenland Armour

Chicago:
The Promenade at Bollingbrook
The Arboretum of South Barrington
Emagine Frankfort

Houston:
Ipic Theatres River Oaks District
Star Cinema Grill Baybrook
Star Cinema Grill Springwoods
Star Cinema Grill Richmond
Star Cinema Grill Cypress

Dallas  The Village at Fairview

Austin:
The Domain Austin
Lake Creek 7

Oklahoma City: Rodeo Cinema

Winchester VA: Alamo Winchester

Minneapolis:
Emagine Eagan 15
Emagine White Bear 17
Emagine Willow Creek 12

Fayettville AK: Razorback 16

Owensboro KY: Owensboro Cinema Grill

Southhaven MS: De Soto Cinema Grill

Ft Collins CO: Lyric Cinema

Salt Lake City:
Megaplex at The Gateway
Megaplex 18 at Thanksgiving Point
Megaplex at Jordan Commons

Ogden UT: Megaplex 13 at The Junction

July 25, 2020

Days of the Whale

Filed under: Colombia,Film — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Now available as virtual cinema, “Days of the Whale” is set in Medellin, Colombia and tells the story of two young street artists contending with street gangs. Given the provenance of both factions, it is not surprising that nearly the entire film takes place on the gritty streets of a city that will always be associated with Pablo Escobar and violence.

When I was in high school, my English teacher Fred Madeo, who was just one of a number of radical-minded faculty members keeping his politics close to his vest, clued us in on “Hedda Gabler”. He said that in act one, you see a pistol being handled by Hedda Gabler. Whenever you see a pistol, a knife, etc., in act one of a play, you are primed to expect some kind of tragedy by the final act.

In “Days of the Whale”, instead of a weapon, you get a gangster warning Simón (David Escallón Orrego), one of the film’s young co-stars, that unless he pays for the “right” to do art on the city’s walls, he might get killed. His girlfriend and fellow artist Cristina (Laura Tobón Ochoa) both put up brave fronts against this threat but you cannot help but feel that they are doomed. Even though most of the film shows them happily at work in an art form that is truly proletarian, you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Despite the threat of violence, this is really much more of a love story and a very good one at that. As much as they love each other, another threat hangs over their head, namely one of being separated through no fault of their own. Cristina’s mother is an investigative reporter whose opposition to the city’s gang world has forced her to move to Spain because of threats on her life. Simón, who comes from a working-class background and who even was a gang member when younger, is torn between loving her and anger over being abandoned. To fight against both threats, they put their heart and soul into their artwork as if each day was their last.

Neither of the co-stars are professional actors. The director-writer Catalina Arroyave Restrepo decided that this would give the film authenticity and she was right. In the press notes, she said that John Cassavetes’s films were an influence. It shows. Her statement on what motivated her to make “Days of the Whale” conveys the hunger of young Colombians for a different way of living in a country degraded by almost a century of dictatorship, corruption, and criminality:

I have always been obsessed with freedom, and that took me to write a story about my discontempt [sic] with that criminal reality and the desire of rebelling against it. I started fantasizing about using the stories that my graffiti artist friends told me about their adventures in the streets, dealing with the owners of each territory, and also with using the colors, rhythm and textures of this universe to make a film. That’s how Days of the whale was conceived.

Highly recommended.

July 19, 2020

Japan Cuts 2020

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

Like other film festivals I’ve reviewed since the pandemic began, this year’s Japan Cuts is virtual. While nothing will ever match the experience of see a film on the big screen among other film buffs, the show must go on as they say in a Busby Berkeley film—can’t remember which one. At $99 for the entire festival or $7 per film, it is certainly worth it. In the past, when I have covered a NY film festival, I always regretted that many of my out-of-town readers will never be able to take part. Fortunately, for them and for the filmmakers who put so much time, money and energy making leading-edge cinema, virtuality has its benefits. Time constraints did not allow me to cover more than four films but based on what I have seen, this festival is a must for film buffs. Japanese films have been a mainstay of serious cinema for the past seventy years and it is still going strong.

Documentaries

i -Documentary of the Journalist

Isoko Mochizuki is Japan’s Helen Thomas. Until she died in 2013, Thomas was famous for stubbornly asking tough questions during press conferences at the White House. Mochizuki is Thomas on steroids. The documentary follows her around collecting information for her next article in the Tokyo Shimbun, usually focused on corporate an governmental malfeasance. Under Shinzo Abe’s administration since 2012, corruption has been rife and she has been practically the only reporter with the guts to take on the establishment.

What you will discover in this mostly cinéma vérité work, which follows her about on her rounds and at press conferences, is that the Japanese government is shielded from the most part from gadflies like her. To get access to a press conference, you have to be part of an old boy’s network that keeps trouble-makers out. It is not so much ideological as it is institutional. Picture McNeil-Lehrer at its most soporific and you’ll get a sense of the typical Japanese reporter.

You can’t help but think of Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” as the film progresses. She has discovered that the USA has been expanding the Henoko military base in Okinawa at the expense of the people living there, which has been the case since 1609 when Japan colonized the island nation. To make room for its partner’s war machine, the government conveniently covered up how red dirt was being used for a landfill into the bay. Since red dirt upsets marine ecology, regulations do not permit using earth with more than 10 percent of red clay. In her interviews with environmental scientists in Okinawa, Mochizuki learned that it was closer to 70 percent.

Much of the film consists of her trying to pin down Abe’s chief spokesman at press conferences, Yoshihide Suga. Suga is a master of stonewalling, making most of Trump’s mouthpieces looking transparent by comparison. Unlike the American press corps that has any number of reporters willing to challenge Trump or his lackies, it devolved upon Mochizuki to challenge the lies.

Although most of us, including me, tend to associate Trump with people like Duterte and Bolsonaro, an argument can be made that his real soulmate is Shinzo Abe. After seeing the film, I was convinced that I had to allocate time for getting up to speed on Japanese politics since the Abe government has vowed to make Japan a first-rate military power. As part of its increasingly nationalistic military and economic posture, Japan has targeted South Korea in the same way that the USA has targeted China. An article titled “Forget Putin and Kim. Trump’s real soulmate lives in Tokyo” describes the bromance between the two nationalistic and corrupt politicians:

That Abe is now borrowing from Trump’s playbook on trade should come as little surprise. The two leaders have established a positive chemistry that is evident during their long and frequent meetings. When Trump visited Japan in May for the enthronement of the country’s new emperor, the two leaders embraced each other, sharing a round of golf, sushi, sumo wrestling and exchange of MAGA-inspired caps. Abe is known to be one of a few Western leaders Trump is fond of.

Reiwa Uprising

Although I didn’t plan my coverage this way, this film is a perfect companion piece to “i -Documentary of the Journalist”. It is a four-hour mostly cinéma vérité look at the election campaign of the Reiwa Shinsengumi (“new squad”) party that fielded 10 candidates to run against the Abe machine in 2019.

Reiwa can best be described as Japan’s version of the sort of guerrilla theater Abby Hoffman made famous in the 1960s. If Abe’s party was determined to represent itself as the embodiment of Japan’s largely militaristic and authoritarian culture, Reiwa turned that culture upside down and ran candidates who were the country’s outcasts and underdogs.

The star of the film is candidate Ayumi Yasutomi, a female transgender Tokyo University professor whose hobby is horseback riding. To show her love for horses that represent the natural world disappearing beneath Japan’s feet, she was accompanied by a horse at all her campaign appearances. Yasutomi’s politics are not exactly ideological. At one point she says that Marxism, liberalism and conservatism have failed Japan. If she was referring to the Japanese Communist Party, I suppose she had a point.

Two of the candidates were quadriplegics, who also happened to be the only two that were elected to the Diet, thus making Reiwa an official party.

The film was directed by Kazuo Hara, who like Isoko Mochizuki has no use for Shinzo Abe’s retrograde social and economic policies. Like Werner Herzog, Hara is drawn to those who are square pegs in bourgeois society’s round holes. Made in 1972, his first film “Goodbye CP” featured men and women with cerebral palsy. His 1987 “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” features Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old WWII veteran who searches out those responsible for the unexplained deaths of two soldiers in his old unit. Errol Morris listed it as one of his Top 5 Favorite Films for Rotten Tomatoes. After seeing his latest, I hope to see more of his work. Highest recommendation for “Reiwa Uprising” that at four hours goes quicker than 90 percent of the films coming out of Hollywood.

Narrative films

The Murders of Oiso

Although people are killed in this film, it is really not a murder mystery. Instead, it is a character study of four high-school students who represent the kind of toxic values that might explain to some degree how Shinzo Abe has become longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history.

Their time is spent hanging out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and playing cards. Perhaps, they are no different than most teens but it is their indifference to anything outside their narrow frame of reference that makes you wonder about the health of Japanese society. Indeed, a large part of Reiwa’s success at the polls has to do with the country’s moral and spiritual rot.

The leader of the pack is a kid named Kazuya, whose father and uncle are partner’s in a crooked construction company, probably one not much different than the one pouring red dirt in to the water near the US military base in Okinawa. Kazuya gets his three pals jobs with the company but they seem to spend about as much time working as the guys that Tony Soprano placed in various New Jersey unionized shops.

The film does not have a conventional narrative arc and dispenses with the kind of suspense you expect in a murder mystery. (Not a single cop shows up in the entire film.) Like the two documentaries above, it is much more of a critical eye on Japanese society that is very much watching if you forgive its defiance of conventional filmmaking gestures.

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp

The festival includes three of the Tora-San films as part of a retrospective. I was especially interested in them since I regard the director/screenwriter Yoji Yamada as one of Japan’s greatest. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had hopes that it might have been in the same vein as his samurai trilogy that I regard as a masterpiece.

I guess I should have realized that any film with “our loveable tramp” in the title is not going to be about sword fights. Instead, it features Kiyoshi Atsumi as Toro-san in just one of the 48 films Yamada did with him in this series from 1969 to 1995. Perhaps the only thing that Toro-san has in common with the samurai, especially after the Meiji restoration when they became itinerant swords-for-hire, is that he is rootless. He is a traveling salesman who owns nothing but the clothes on his back and his suitcase filled with dubious wares, none of which would qualify for an ad on a cable TV commercial at 3am in the morning.

As for being “loveable”, that’s used ironically since like Charlie Chaplin, Toro-san is anything but. Just as the little tramp was not above turning a dinner party into a food-fight, Toro-san always finds a way to antagonize people, always with no awareness of the consequence of his actions.

After returning to the town where he was born, he reunites with his long-lost sister who he hasn’t seen in twenty years. When he accompanies her to a dinner party hosted by the boss of the company where she works (she is soon to become engaged to his son), Toro-san gets drunk and starts to tell off-color jokes and generally embarrassing his sister. If you’ve seen Borat in action, you’ll get an idea of what kind of mischief his character is capable of.

Unlike Borat, Toro-san has an epiphany toward the end of the film when he discovers that the woman he loves has plans to marry someone much higher-up on the social ladder. Although the Toro-san films are comedies, they do reflect Japan’s strict class-based social codes that the anti-hero defies with abandon. Ironically, in his own way, he was the kind of film character that prefigured the Reiwa uprising. A man sick and tired of hierarchy, materialism and hypocrisy.

June 30, 2020

Eating Up Easter

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Available today on Music Box Virtual Cinema, “Eating Up Easter” documents the difficult balancing act that the Rapanui people have to carry out on Easter Island. They live 2,500 miles from Chile and walk a tightrope with their culture on one side and global capitalism on the other. Capitalism makes the tourist industry possible, allowing them to enjoy a higher standard of living than other Chileans (Chile annexed the island in 1877), but that also poses real threats to their culture, both through the trash that tourists leave on the island and the rampant consumerism new-found wealth brings. For those who have been following Cuba’s opening up to the tourist industry ever since the “special period”, the mixed blessings will be obvious.

Directed by the Rapanui husband-and-wife team of Sergio and Elena Rapu, the film features native peoples who are highly representative of the island’s trajectory. His father Sergio senior was a college-educated archaeologist and Rapanui’s first native governor. He decided to push strongly for integration with Chile and making the island “successful” economically. Part of that meant his abandoning archaeology and becoming a real estate developer. We see him supervising the construction of the first shopping mall on the island

We also meet Enrique Icke and Mahani Teave, a young husband and wife who see music as a way of preserving their culture. Enrique is also a trained engineer and anxious to solve the island’s environmental challenges, part of which entails building a music school with recycled material like beer bottles and automobile tires.

Finally, the most compelling character is a septuagenarian native woman called Mama Piru who is fiercely committed to Green values. Like Honduras’s Berta Cáceres, she won’t take no for an answer when it comes to ecological sustainability. Unlike the martyred Cáceres, the threat she faces is not assassination but being overwhelmed by capital’s power to transform “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.” That was how Marx put it in “The Communist Manifesto”. Unfortunately, some Marxists today view that as progressive per se when in fact a return to “ancient and venerable” practices carried out by precapitalist societies must be considered especially when it comes to respect for Mother Nature.

In 1993, the Rapanui people became integrated into capitalist property relations in the most unexpected manner. Kevin Costner came to Easter Island with a massive production crew to make “Rapa-Nui”, a film that required practically every islander to be used as an extra. At $40 a day, they hit the jackpot.

The film depicts the islanders as victims of their own anti-environmentalist practices, with deforestation resulting from the building of the huge statues called moai. The only criticism I have of the film is the directors’ failure to counter this oft-cited explanation of how Easter Island became a case study in not respecting Mother Nature.

In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you get the same version of the island’s decline as in Costner’s idiotic film but without the soundtrack and cinematic panache.

One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises of the mainstream account of Easter Island is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo’s Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide”. In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of “ecocide” in human history, a product of the folly of the island’s rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the “imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation.”

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island’s collapse is a fiction in keeping with Costner’s film.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island’s population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place — leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

“Eating Up Easter” is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. The islanders are wrestling with the same contradictions as the rest of the planet. At one point, Enrique Icke has a conversation with an environmental consultant who scoffs at the idea that the Green renewal projects on Rapanui are of much use to countries with five million people. (Rapanui has 7,750 citizens.) Enrique defends the tiny islands role as an example of what can be done once the entire society is behind a Green transformation. Seen as a laboratory for the projects this planet much undertake for its survival, the example set by the people of “Eating Up Easter” is a good place to start.

June 26, 2020

The Last Tree, Madagasikara

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 26, 2020

Two new films debut as Virtual Cinema today. Both address the hopes and the suffering of Africans, both in diaspora and on the continent.

“The Last Tree” is a coming-of-age story about Femi, a Nigerian boy growing up in a British housing estate. Despite the word “estate”, these buildings have much in common with housing projects in the USA and Paris’s banlieues. Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire as a result of negligence, was part of a housing estate. Coming-of-age films are not my favorite genre. “The Last Tree” soars above any I have seen since the sixties and is sure to be one of my picks for best films of 2020.

“Madagasikara,” the Malagasy name for Madagascar, documents the struggle for survival in an island nation just 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. This is a country of 26 million people with a per capita GDP of $471 per year, about half of Haiti’s. Although most people are aware of how Haiti became so poor, very little is known about Madagascar’s steep decline. Real income is only a third of what it was fifty years ago and imperialism is to blame.

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June 23, 2020

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Peter Medak is an 82-year old director who went through the harrowing experience of working with Peter Sellers in a comedy titled “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” in 1974. Like Ishmael quoting Job in the final page of “Moby Dick”, his latest film about this fiasco could have ended with the same words rolling across the screen before the closing credits: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Titled “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”, Medak’s documentary reunites all the survivors who went through this experience with him. They exchange atrocity tales about working with Sellers on a movie that never should have been made in the first place. Octogenarians like Medak, they bring a wealth of experience about filmmaking over long careers. If “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was a colossal flop, you can credit it with one of its redeeming features. It inspired a documentary that will be of keen interest to anybody who loves film. It will make you appreciate the efforts that go into a film production that is difficult enough in the first place. When your star is a complete madman like Peter Sellers, it turns into a ticking time-bomb.

In 1974, Medak was a relative newcomer to directing films, with four credits to his name, including “The Ruling Class” that is described on the Turner Classic Movies website as a commercial failure that became a cult classic. The words commercial failure do not begin to do justice to “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that never made it into theaters. Columbia shit-canned it after seeing the director’s cut. It was stillborn but should have been aborted after the first week of filming.

The screenplay was written by Spike Milligan, who was Peter Sellers’s partner in a long-running BBC radio show called “The Goon Show” that I used to listen to on WBAI centuries ago when it was still a great radio station. The show incorporated ludicrous plots with surreal humor and bizarre sound effects. It was the inspiration for future comedy shows like Monty Python and Firesign Theater.

The documentary includes many excerpts from “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that strike me as an early attempt at making something like “Pirates of the Caribbean” but with far less success. As the pirate captain, Sellers in a fright wig comes across as if he were performing in one of the more stupid SNL sketches. With Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers having much more leverage on the production than Medak, the whole thing struck me as a vanity project gone very, very wrong. Like the Pequod in “Moby Dick”, the ship featured in “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was doomed from the start.

The portrait of Peter Sellers as an actor and a human being is what makes this film so compelling. As the greatest comic actor of our generation who had the fame and power of Charlie Chaplin in an earlier era, he comes across as a total asshole. When Medak and Sellers first get together in a Mediterranean villa to discuss how they would approach the film, Sellers spots a Who’s Who book on a nearby shelf. He then picks it up and finds entries for the film’s producers who he then orders to be fired. Given his superstar power, he got his way just as he got his way through the entire production, making one bad decision after another.

If his domineering style wasn’t bad enough in itself, it was made worse by his indifference to the film’s outcome. He routinely came late to meetings, antagonized the crew and generally acted more as a saboteur than a team player. In one stunning episode, he feigned a heart attack during a scene so that he could return to England ostensibly for treatment. Medak was shocked to see Sellers on the front page of a British tabloid coming out of a restaurant with Princess Margaret.

Hobbled by a sloppily conceived script, the film encountered insurmountable technical problems based on the misguided attempt to film at sea in an ancient boat that had been retrofitted to look like a 17th century pirate ship. Out on the sea filming the entire day, the crew and the cast were beset by seasickness. Made long before digital cameras were available, the boat had to tow a smaller boat equipped with a generator to power the cameras.

Medak is the star of his own film, using it as a kind of psychotherapy to purge what amounts to a major trauma. With the wisdom of his advanced age and that of the other men and women who worked on the film, he offers an object lesson in the art of filmmaking. While it is easy to understand why you might watch Kurosawa or Godard in film school, this documentary should be must-viewing in film schools across the world. Medak and the production team made this film in order to get paid. Unlike writing a novel or a poem, filmmaking is part business and part art. It was obvious that all the participants were anxious to make this film because Sellers was so bankable. It turned out that he was as bankable as Lehman Brothers in 2008, at least when it came to a misbegotten project like “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”.

The film opened today on Amazon Prime. It will likely be one of my nominations for best documentary of 2020.

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