Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 1, 2019

The best films of 2018

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 1, 2019

Up until a few years ago—I really can’t say exactly when—all of the “art-house” movies I reviewed for CounterPunch or my blog were out of the reach of most readers unless you lived in New York or other cities where theaters like the Film Forum or the Laemmle could be found. Some eventually made their way to art-house versions of Netflix like Fandor or Mubi but they entailed a monthly subscription fee.

Despite my hostility to Jeff Bezos and everything he stands for, Amazon Prime Video is a reliable outlet for such films. So is iTunes, Starz, Hulu and other VOD venues that have helped to keep art-house cinema alive. Along with the digital camera, another breakthrough benefiting independent film makers, such venues ensure that an envelope-pushing film shown at an art-house will have a good shot at reaching a broader audience. As I did last year, I worked my way through the films I reviewed in 2018 to determine which are now available on Amazon (and likely other VOD sites) in order to come up with my decidedly non-Hollywood recommendations.

I should state, however, that the best film of 2018 listed below is a Hollywood film: Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”. Rumor has it, however, that the film will be snubbed at next month’s Academy Awards because Schrader Tweeted that he would like to work with the disgraced Kevin Spacey. It is worth mentioning that Ethan Hawke, who played the tortured minister in Schrader’s film, has addressed these issues in a Vanity Fair article titled “Ethan Hawke: “There’s a Whole Generation That’s on Trial Right Now” that is in keeping with the actor’s shrewd understanding of the film industry. I particularly liked this quip:

The real problem, Hawke says, is concepts like the best-popular-film Oscar, which would have detracted from awards season’s true goal: to boost the signal on under-seen, artistically challenging films. “There already is a popular Oscar. It’s such a dumb thing to say. The popular Oscar is called the box office,” he said. “They’re mad they don’t get prizes. You know, well—guess what, dude? Your car is your prize. Those of us who don’t have a car need a prize.”

As for the films that will walk away with a wheelbarrow of Oscars, I found that most were unbearable to watch. After 15 minutes, I ejected the following from my DVD player: “The Favourite”, “A Star is Born”, and “Crazy Rich Asians”. Of course, I haven’t gotten around to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “First Man” yet.

Below are my recommended films. Since the idea of rating anything is abhorrent to me in the first place, they appear in alphabetical order. I will excerpt from my review and provide a link to the original. As stated before, the list was culled from Amazon Prime Video but if your hatred for Jeff Bezos understandably keeps you from spending a few dollars there, you can try iTunes, et al. (Not that Apple is any bargain, either.)

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January 31, 2019

Standoff at Sparrow Creek; Drugs as Weapons Against Us

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Recently I looked at two films made by first-time directors that are very much worth seeing even if they are somewhat flawed. Let’s put it this way. They will be a much better use of your time than watching “Crazy Rich Asians” or “First Man”.

From the publicist’s email, I had the impression that “Standoff at Sparrow Creek” would be an action film since it involves a cop working undercover in a militia group. The word “standoff” evokes car chases, gun battles, and the like. As such, I avoided watching the screener until finally relenting to assuage the publicist who assured me that it was not what it appeared. I am glad I did since it is interesting, character-driven work that is practically a filmed theater piece. Shot in a single location—a massive lumber warehouse—the film consists almost exclusively of dialogue. It is rare to see a film nowadays that departs from action film clichés. Even with its flaws, which are naturally expected in a first-time film, it is worth seeing on VOD a few weeks after it made a brief appearance at the Cinema Village in New York.

If you are of advanced years like me, “Standoff at Sparrow Creek” will remind you of the classic live teleplays shown on Playhouse 90 or the Philco Television Playhouse. With scripts written by Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and the like, the emphasis was on suspense—not in the sense of an Alfred Hitchcock movie but more focused on how a conflict would be resolved.

When the film begins, we meet a group of militia members who are shocked to learn that one of them has carried out a terrorist attack on a policeman’s funeral that left dozens dead and wounded. Despite their hatred for “the deep state”, they realize that the consequences would be a cop counter-attack that would leave them in prison or dead. Since an AR-15 is missing from their arsenal, they can only conclude that it was one of their own who was responsible. They assign an ex-cop to interrogate their members since he has the professional qualifications to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth.

The entire film, except for the surprise ending, consists of the ex-cop in dialogue with one militia member or another. The tension mounts as each man is put on the spot for having both the motive and the expertise to carry out an undisciplined offensive. Although the film is far removed thematically from “The Thing” or “Reservoir Dogs”, you will be reminded of the investigation carried out to identify either the space alien or the undercover cop. However, the big difference is that writer/director is not interested in seeing people physically tortured—only psychologically tortured, including both the interrogator and the interrogated.

Writer/director Henry Dunham operated on a budget of $400,000, which sounds like a fortune to most of you but is actually a shoestring budget for a film. In an interview with Film School Rejects, Dunham said: “Back to your original thing, about meeting with all the actors – it was just like I’m going to shoot it like a 70’s stage play. Just simple. I drew the movie out in five books and it’s about 1400 drawings and just sort of showing them everything laid out.” I would only add that it was more like a 50s teleplay even if the filmmaker was too young to have ever seen one.

My chief criticism of the film was its failure to engage more with the politics of the militia movement. Considering the rise of fascist movements in the USA in the past couple of years, it would have strengthened the film to have some deeper engagement with what made these men decide to form a white supremacist militia. Missing this dimension, the film sacrificed social commentary in the interests of individual psychology. In my view, you can combine both.

The other film is “Drugs as Weapons Against Us: The CIA War on Musicians and Activists” that never showed in theaters but became available as VOD two days ago. Check the director’s website for screening information. Despite being mired in conspiracy theory, it is worth watching since well over 75 percent of it is based on historical facts, namely the CIA’s MK Ultra program that involved experimenting with LSD to see if it could be deployed as a military weapon to degrade an enemy’s defenses. Director John Potash based his documentary on a book he wrote in 2015. It was clearly influenced by Martin Lee’s 1992 “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond” that I read when it first came out. Lee appears in a brief interview in the film but like everybody else shown in the film, excluding one, the interview was lifted from another film or TV news segment.

That exception was Columbia professor Jamal Joseph, whose background was unlike any other faculty member. He was one of the Black Panther 21, a group of men who were convicted of planning a terrorist attack in 1969. Joseph spent six years in Leavenworth, where he earned two college degrees behind bars. Eventually, he ended up at Columbia heading up the Graduate Film Division where he likely ran into Potash.

Potash’s motivation in writing the book and making the film is to show how LSD was used to move SDS away from radicalism and move toward the “Tune in, Turn on, Drop out” philosophy of Timothy Leary whose LSD experiments were done in conjunction with the MK Ultra program. As for the Panthers, the destabilization drug of choice was cocaine. When Huey Newton began pushing cocaine, it was supposedly done on the suggestion of agent provocateurs according to the film.

Some of the revelations in the film are startling, even to someone like me who was familiar with Lee’s book and other drug/subversion efforts mounted by the CIA, including the news reports of Gary Webb about the Nicaraguan contra/CIA drug sales intended to pay for weapons.

For example, Ken Kesey, who proselytized for LSD in the 60s and 70s, was a volunteer with the MK Ultra project when he was a student at Stanford. We also learn that Paul Robeson was never the same after a nervous breakdown in 1961. During a wild party in a Moscow hotel room, he went into the bathroom and slashed his wrists. His son Paul Robeson Jr. believes that this was a result of someone spiking his drink with LSD. Considering the hatred the CIA had for Robeson, I find this entirely plausible especially since the CIA planned to sabotage his speeches by spraying his broadcasting studio with a chemical that would make him suffer similar LSD type hallucinations.

Where I differ from Potash is ascribing the epidemic of LSD trips in the 60s to the CIA exclusively. Since he did not live through the period, he probably didn’t understand that people from my generation wanted to take LSD because it was a chemical version of the spiritual voyages of mystics like Meister Eckhart or William Blake. In 1963, I learned about Bard students who went over to Millbrook, a mansion about a half-hour’s drive from the school where Leary hosted wild acid-dropping parties.

Potash finds it incriminating that the mansion was owned by William Mellon Hitchcock, who was an heir to the Mellon fortune as well as that of William Larimer Hitchcock who founded Gulf Oil. I would look at it somewhat differently. I would see not this so much as a sign that the Mellons were trying to prevent student radicals from becoming powerful but that Billy Hitchcock, as his friends called him, was just a beatnik like the rest of us. Or maybe he was both a beatnik and a CIA asset? Who knows. Watch the film and decide for yourself.

 

January 8, 2019

First Iranian Film Festival at the IFC Center in NYC

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 8, 2019

Ever since 2014, I have made the case for Iranian films on CounterPunch (see links to the articles below).

At the risk of sounding like one of those reviewers addicted to superlatives for Hollywood films that appear in full-page ads in the NY Times, let me say that the five films I have seen in advance of the Iranian Film Festival that opens next week at the IFC Center in New York on January 10th beat the pants off of Roma, Widows, The Favourite, The Green Book or any other films that have the inside track for Academy Awards.

They incorporate the elements that have draw attention to Iranian films worldwide for the past forty years, including a swan song for Abbas Kiarostami, a director/screenwriter that Martin Scorsese describes as having “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” It is a supreme irony that a state with a well-deserved reputation for censorship is capable of serving as an incubator for great art but then again the greatest music ever written catered to the tastes of both church and nobility.

Let’s be grateful that the batch of five films discussed below, which push the envelope of Iranian cultural norms, can still be made. To some extent this reflects a cultural thaw under Hassan Rouhani who is determined to open up the country’s economy to foreign investors, even if Donald Trump is just as determined to keep the doors closed. I was ecstatic to see that one of the five films was directed by Jafar Panahi who I consider one of the world’s greatest directors. Though under house arrest between 2010 until 2015, he was still defiant enough to make a film in 2011 on an iPhone inside his home titled “This is Not a Film” that was up to his usual high standards. He still cannot leave Iran, even if in film circles he is considered to be on a par with Kiarostami.

At the risk of indulging in hyperbole, I advise seeing as many of these films as possible at the IFC. They will remind you of not only how films can reach the level of fine art but provide insights into a country that is as important geopolitically as any on earth.

Continue reading

 

 

January 3, 2019

Communion

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Among the Hollywood “quality” films sent to me in November for consideration in our NYFCO awards meeting was “Crazy Rich Asians” that I could not endure for more than 15 minutes. If I had watched the whole thing, I probably would have written a review something like this:

If you go to a bachelorette party on an island and the other guests put a huge bloody fish head on your pillow, you are in a horror movie, not a rom-com. Maybe at this point in the history of capitalism there’s not much difference. Crazy Rich Asians looks more like a glossy tourist magazine produced for an international economics summit than a movie.

That’s from A.S. Hamrah, the film reviewer at N+1, a really great Marxist journal of politics and the arts. The graphics aren’t snazzy like Jacobin’s but it is ten times smarter. Hamrah should get a medal just for sitting through this garbage.

Starting not long after the NYFCO awards meeting, I got back to the kind of films I really enjoy. I doubt that I will see any this year that is more of a polar opposite to “Crazy Rich Asians” than “Communion”, a Polish cinéma vérité documentary about a family that is not only at the bottom of the economic ladder but burdened by serious problems that would challenge even a billionaire’s. Opening tomorrow at the IFC in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles, the lead subject is a 14-year old girl named Ola who is effectively the family head. With a 13-year old autistic brother Nikodem being prepped for his communion and an unemployed alcoholic father to look after, her perseverance and grace under fire is something to behold.

Nikodem’s autism is probably at the higher end of the spectrum since he is engaged with his sister and father but mostly on his own terms. They don’t treat him as ill but simply as someone prone to misbehavior. Happiest when he is taking a bath, he is chided by Ola for using up too much bubble bath. You first get the impression that he is not “normal” by the sight of his hands fluttering nonstop in the air, as if he were a flamenco dancer on methamphetamine. He also has a remarkable vocabulary for any 13-year old, let alone one with autism. When the words come tumbling out, they have a vaguely oracular quality. Early on, Ola is looking through his communion preparation notebook and chastising him for the inappropriate entries, one per page and accompanied by illustrations: “No Mongols allowed”, “Life is a Rat”, “He was born to be a Rat”, “When Jesus was born, the dinosaurs…”, “Most of the dinosaurs…”, “The End of Jesus”. As she tears each page out of the notebook, he squeals in complaint. You really have to wonder how he will make it through communion with notes like this. On top of that, when he is in a training session with a priest over how to understand sin, Nikodem disagrees with the notion that gluttony is a sin. How can eating as much as you want be a sin?

In addition to its intimate portraiture of an unlikely family, “Communion” is a sharp-eyed examination of the empty rituals of the Catholic Church in Poland. Ola keeps pressuring Nikodem to memorize his responses to the questions put to him in the communion ritual without worrying too much whether he understands them or not. I went through a similar exercise when I was his age, learning Hebrew to recite my bar mitzvah haftarah but had no clue what the words meant.

Rounding out the cast is Marek, a chain-smoking, beer-swigging wastrel whose wife has left him for obvious reasons (she makes a brief and touching appearance on the weekend of Nikodem’s communion.) Ironically, it was a chance encounter with him that led to the making of this remarkable film as director Anna Zamecka mentions in her Filmmaker interview:

I was working on a project about the European football championship of 2012; Poland was hosting the games that year. I was shooting at the central train station in Warsaw. There were a lot of foreign tourists coming to the city, and I was filming them attempting to communicate with a ticket cashier who only spoke Polish. She was having a lot of trouble understanding a customer and, as there was a very long line, people were starting to become impatient. This man approached the tourist and started asking him questions in German, then in English, then Spanish, Italian, Serbian, and other languages, wanting to know how he could help him. The guy was French so the two started having a long conversation in French, and Marek eventually helped him to buy his ticket. Unbeknownst to them, I was filming the whole time. I went home and watched the footage and was completely captivated by Marek.

A couple of days later, I was filming in the station again, and I could hear his voice through my headphones. I tracked him down and shyly approached him to introduce myself and confess that I had filmed him the other day. I wanted to know how he knew so many languages. He told me that he was a self-taught linguist. In the ‘80s, he had been selling money to foreign tourists. In order to cheat them, he taught himself to communicate in as many languages as possible. [laughter]

With newspaper coverage about Poland today focused almost exclusively on the Trump-like authoritarianism of the President and the apparent (at least for the time being) willingness of the population to accept it, Anna Zamecka’s film is a reminder of the generous and intelligent spirit of its artists. As a student from the country’s prestigious Wajda school, she pays homage to the great man who it was named after.

December 30, 2018

Genesis 2.0

Filed under: extinction,Film,indigenous,Russia,science — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

If you knew nothing beforehand about “Genesis 2.0” and sat down after the opening credits had rolled, you’d swear after about 15 minutes that you were watching Warner Herzog’s latest documentary since it incorporates his obsession with obsessional people. In this instance, it is the Yakut hunters who have set out on a hunting trip for dead animals, specifically the tusks of woolly mammoths that have been extinct for around 10,000 years. It would not be far-fetched to call them scavengers rather than hunters.

The Yakuts live in the very north of Siberia. If the word Siberia summons up visions of frigid, desolate and barren tundra, nothing prepares you for the hunting ground they have chosen, the New Siberian Islands to the north of Siberia that would be of little interest to any Russian if it were not the high price paid for the tusks of creatures dead 10,000 years ago and up. Of course, that price is relative since like most indigenous people drawn into the commodity production, they are likely to be the lowest paid.

We learn that woolly mammoth tusks are in high demand because there is now a ban on exporting elephant tusks to China where they are used in carvings purchased by a nouveau riche population that seem little interest in whether a knick-knack on their fireplace mantle might eventually lead to the extinction of the African elephant, the genetic relative of the woolly mammoth as well as the mastodon. In the commodity chain, a Yakut hunter might get a hundred dollars for a tusk that is in relatively good condition. It is then sold in the marketplace in China for up to tens of thousands of dollars to a merchant who then hires artisans to turn it into something looking like this:

This goes for $130,000 at http://mammothtusk.org/

“Genesis 2.0” is narrated by Christian Frei, the Swiss director whose native language is German. If it wasn’t for the offbeat subject, the narrator’s quizzical tone and German accent would convince you that you were listening to Werner Herzog. That being said, Frei is dealing with far more deeply philosophical questions than any I have ever seen in a Herzog film. Since I consider Herzog to be one of the top ten living filmmakers, that’s quite a compliment to Frei whose ambition is to engage with the deepest concerns of the 21st century: what is humanity’s future and what is the future of life in general? Although we do not hear the term “sixth extinction” once in the film, you can’t help but think of it.

Among the men profiled by Frei is Peter Grigoriev, a Yakut who dropped out of college to become a mammoth tusk hunter. His brother Semyon also plays a major role in the documentary even though he is not a hunter. He is a paleontologist and head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic in northern Siberia. His dream is to resurrect a woolly mammoth, a task his brother and his fellow hunters make plausible after they stumble across the nearly complete carcass of a baby woolly mammoth that has been so well-preserved under the frozen tundra that its blood pours liquid from its veins.

Like Indiana Jones coming across the lost ark of the covenant, Semyon feels like his lifelong dream has been realized. With samples in hand, he flies to South Korea to connect with Woo Suk Hwang who runs Sooam Biotech, the largest cloning laboratory in the world and most successful. While Woo is mainly interested in pure science, he pays his bills by cloning the pet dogs of wealthy people who are willing to pay the same money to be reconnected with Fido as those willing to shell out for a mammoth tusk carving. We hear from one customer, a woman with a distinctly nasal Queens accent who says she loved her dog more than anybody, including her husband and her mother. In moments like this, you can also be fooled into thinking you are watching a Werner Herzog since the unintended comedy is funnier than any Will Ferrell movie I’ve ever seen.

This is not Semyon’s last stop. Next, he flies to China to meet with the top management of BGI, a genome sequencing laboratory that has Communist Party members and military officers on its board. They are anxious to register the dead baby woolly mammoth’s genome codes with BGI that is aspiring to encompass every single living thing on earth in its electronic archives. Like Woo, BGI pays for their pure science undertakings by the more menial job of testing fetal samples sent to their labs by parents anxious to preempt having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. When Semyon’s colleague questions the morality of such a business, the BGI executive stares blankly at him with a plastic smile on her face.

Let me conclude with something from the press notes that helps pull together the different strands of this remarkable film that opens on January second at the IFC in New York:

There is a kind of gold rush fever in the air, because the prices for this white gold have never been so high. But the thawing permafrost unveils more than just precious ivory. Sometimes the hunters find an almost completely preserved mammoth carcass with fur, liquid blood and muscle tissue on which arctic foxes gnaw.

Such finds are magnets for high-tech Russian and South Korean clone researchers in search of mammoth cells with the greatest possible degree of intact DNA. Their mission could be part of a science-fiction plot. They want to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life à la “Jurassic Park”, and resurrect it as a species. And that’s just the beginning. Worldwide, biologists are working on re-inventing life. They want to learn the language of nature and create life following the Lego principle. ( The Lego Principle refers to the concept of connecting first to God and then to one another. Regardless of the shape, size, or color of any LEGO brick, each is designed to do just one thing: connect. LEGO pieces are designed to connect at the top with studs and the bottom with tubes. Following this metaphor, if you can connect to the top with God and to the foundation with others, you then have the ability to shape the world you live in.) The goal of synthetic biology is to produce complete artificial biological systems. Man becomes the Creator.

The resurrection of the mammoth is a first track and manifestation of this next great technological revolution. An exercise. A multi-million dollar game. The new technology may well turn the world as we know it completely on its head…and all of this has its origin in the unstoppably thawing permafrost at the extreme edge of Siberia.

Genesis two point zero.

 

December 14, 2018

That Way Madness Lies

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

The first word that came to mind after watching “That Way Madness Lies”, Sandra Luckow’s documentary about her older brother’s Duanne’s wildly destructive tendencies brought on by paranoid schizophrenia, was courageous. As a film professor at Yale, Columbia and Barnard with a long career in filmmaking, Luckow could have made any number of films that would have been less painful and confessional. However, she surely must have understood that this was not just a bit of family history that would draw an audience in the same way a roadside accident draws the stares from bypassing cars. Its broader interest is in showing the terrible lack of institutional support for families that have to cope with a walking time-bomb like Duanne Luckow. While it is beyond the scope of this article, I can say that I have seen such problems up-close and can empathize deeply with what Sandra Luckow had to endure.

As American as apple pie, the Luckows hailed from Portland, Oregon where her father operated an antique car repair shop. Mechanically gifted, he built a tiny helicopter that he flew for pleasure. Showing the same aptitude as his father, Duanne soon became his partner. In addition to his talent for repairing cars, Duanne also became an avid home movie buff, varying between the typical vacation fare and ambitious works depicting himself as a James Bond type super-spy. He also was an accomplished still photographer who managed to entice young women into cheesecake type shoots that oddly enough substituted for any real intimacy. Looking back at this and other eccentricities, Sandra wonders whether the family might have sought professional help early on. Obviously, those eccentricities were normal enough in a country that is a breeding ground for maladjustment.

Continue reading

December 12, 2018

The Quake

Filed under: disaster,Film — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Among the most popular genres marketed to the youth-oriented Cineplex world is the disaster film. The natural disasters range from tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, meteor strikes to luxury liners capsizing from either a rogue wave or an iceberg. The plot is dictated by the necessity of survival and generally involves a strong male lead trying to unite with a daughter or wife who he has become separated from after the disaster strikes. Such films naturally require a major investment in special effects or computer graphics since that’s the only way to depict New York City being destroyed by a flood of biblical proportions or a fireball produced by a humongous rock from outer space striking the planet.

Hollywood generally dumbs down such films since they are intended to scare you like a roller coaster ride rather than make you think. When Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox produced “The Day After Tomorrow”, they wanted you to sit at the edge of your chair hoping that the paleoclimatologist dad (Dennis Quaid) would somehow make it across thousands of miles of ice produced by climate change to reach and rescue his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) holed up in the public library on 42nd street. Do you think that the film had much to say about how the new ice age happened? Don’t be silly.

Three years ago, I saw “The Wave”, a Norwegian film about how rockslides created devastating tsunamis twice in the twentieth century in the village of Tajford. The first tsunami occurred in 1905, killing 60 people. Thirty-one years later, another 74 lost their lives from the same natural disaster. Considering the fact that Norway’s population was only 2.5 million in 1905, the first tsunami would have killed the equivalent of about 7,000 people in the USA today.

Roar Uthaug, the director of “The Wave” (Bølgen), who admits to being a fan of Hollywood films like “Twister” and “Armageddon”, decided to make his own such film but on a micro-budget probably proportionate to the percentage difference in population between Norway and the USA. Unlike “Twister” or “Armageddon”, “The Wave” played in an arthouse in New York. Even if a teen audience would have loved a dubbed version of “The Wave”, subtitles are a show-stopper for most Americans, including those with Ph.D.’s. Speaking for myself, dubbing is more painful than a toothache.

Although I loved “The Wave”, I didn’t bother reviewing it—mostly because it was a bit far afield from my usual beat. If I had written a review, it might have read something like what Anthony Lane wrote for the New Yorker but in plainer language:

You would hope that a Norwegian disaster film would take place on a fjord, and so it does. The director’s name is Roar Uthaug, and that, too, fulfills all expectations. Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is a geologist, on his final shift at the fjord; he and his wife (Ane Dahl Torp) and their children are packing up and preparing to move to the city. A nearby mountain chooses this day—of all days!—to crack and slide into the water. This causes a tsunami, which surges toward the town where the family lives; other souls are in equal danger, but they matter less. In short, far from wriggling free of the standard tropes of Hollywood catastrophe, Uthaug embraces them eagerly, right down to the hero’s kids—a teen-age boy, stirred to moody heroics, and a Teddy-bear-clutching young girl. As for fleeing the flood, they naturally have ten minutes to reach high ground. (Kristian, ever thorough, sets his watch.) Yet the movie works; the setting feels grandly unfamiliar, and the aftermath of the wave, with its elemental mix of water and fire, seems like a plausible vision of Hell. In Norwegian.

This time around, I will not neglect reviewing the sequel to “The Wave”, this time directed by John Andreas Andersen but featuring the geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) and his family once again. As should be obvious from the title, “The Quake” (Skjelvet), is about an earthquake pulverizing Oslo. There was an earthquake in 1904 that damaged some buildings but resulted in no fatalities (as far as I can determine.) Some geologists warn that conditions exist for producing a “severe” earthquake but it is safe to say that the one depicted through CGI in “The Quake” is far more devastating than any than that the worst earthquake has ever produced. It is a movie after all.

In the sequel, the family has disintegrated. Kristian has remained in Geiranger, the town that suffered the tsunami, while his wife and two children have relocated to Oslo. He appears to be a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, holed up in his house pasting articles about the disaster in an upstairs room. When his young daughter Julia comes for a visit, she asks him what he is up to in this room and he lacks the presence of mind to give her a proper answer. The next day, he cuts her visit short and puts her back on the boat to Oslo.

A few days later, he receives a packet of articles from a fellow geologist indicating that a major earthquake is in the works. Just after putting the package in the mail, the colleague dies in a cave-in in a tunnel underneath a fjord leading into Oslo. Kristian then contacts the man’s daughter who gives him free rein to examine the geologist’s office where he finds convincing evidence that a “big one” is about to hit Oslo.

A desperate Kristian meets with the chief geologist for the government who warns Kristian about going overboard. Meeting indifference everywhere he goes, including from his own family, he begins to resemble Jack Lemmon’s character in “China Syndrome”.

When the earthquake hits, he finds himself in the same 34-story office building as his wife and daughter Julia, where he embarks on a rescue mission that is as hair-raising as I have seen in a movie since that scene in “Wages of Fear” when Yves Montand attempts to maneuver a truck filled with nitroglycerine off a rickety wooden platform on a mountain ledge.

“The Quake” opens on Friday at selected theaters but, fortunately, on VOD as well. Information on its availability is at the film’s website. As for “The Wave”, it is available on Amazon Prime and other VOD platforms as well.

 

 

December 7, 2018

Boy Erased; The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 7, 2018

This year two narrative films shared the same subject matter: the damage that conversion therapy does to gay people following a regimen based on Christian fundamentalism and bogus psychotherapy in order to “change”. “The Boy Erased” had a bigger budget and a more conventional Hollywood distribution path than the indie “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” that played in arthouses but both are excellent. The first is currently playing in theaters everywhere, advertised heavily, and considered as possible Oscar-bait while the second that opened over the summer can now be seen as VOD. I made a point of seeing both films after watching a segment on Sunday Morning CBS News a couple of months ago about conversion therapy, a practice that struck me as utterly barbaric. After saying something about the two films, I will conclude with some observations about how the “sky religions” have managed to maintain utterly inhuman practices based on a couple of sentences in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, notwithstanding shifting attitudes toward same-sexers over the eons.

Continue reading

December 6, 2018

Black America seen through the prism of seven films released this year

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 2:16 am

Likely a combination of pressure applied on the Hollywood film industry to be more racially inclusive and the street protests led by Black Lives Matter, 2018 was marked by a bumper crop of films about Black America. Perhaps the most significant evidence of a shift was the long and flattering article in the May 22, 2018 Sunday NY Times Magazine section titled “How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood” that was unlike any article I had seen in the magazine in a long time, maybe ever:

“Sorry to Bother You” comes out in wide release in July. The film is visually ingenious and funny, yet grounded by pointed arguments about the obstacles to black success in America, the power of strikes and the soul-draining predations of capitalism. A self-described communist since his teens, Riley has said he aims “to help build a mass movement that can use withholding of labor as a strategy for social change.”

Another such film that opened to universal acclaim was Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”, which some critics viewed as his best work ever. I avoided seeing the two films when they first came out partly as a reaction to the hype surrounding them. In general, I stay away from Hollywood films for most of the year since they hardly seem worth the money I would spend to see them. As I expected, I received screeners for both films and can say at this point that my skepticism was warranted. This has also been the case with just about every other film I have seen in this capacity except for the surprisingly great “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

As it happens, the best in this group of seven under consideration was a low-budget neorealist indie film titled “Life and Nothing More” directed by a Spaniard who used nonprofessionals exclusively. Except for this film, the others were flawed in one way or another. Despite that, I have no problem recommending them all since they at least engage with the realities of racism that have deepened horrifically under the white supremacist administration of Donald Trump.

Sorry to Bother You

The main character in this surrealist satire is a young African-American man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who has just started a job as a telemarketer in Oakland. When he fails to sell much of anything, an older co-worker played by Danny Glover advises him to use a “white voice”. This leads to success, so much so that he gets promoted to a highly paid “power caller” position on a higher floor. When his co-workers on the ground floor form a union to strike for higher wages, Green crosses their picket line.

The combination of losing friendships made on the ground floor, estrangement from his girlfriend–a radical artist, and the dark secrets he discovers on the top floor is enough to make him quit his power caller job and join the resistance.

Both the ground-floor and top-floor operations are owned by a man named Steve Lift who might be described as a combination of Jeff Bezos and some villain out of a Marvel comic book—not that there’s much difference. Lift has begun building a slave labor work force based on Centaur-like creatures called “equisapiens” that are produced by a gene-modifying, cocaine-like drug that Green himself is persuaded to take in Lift’s office.

As a genre, surrealist satire generally leaves me cold. Although I have seen no references to this, it strikes me that the work of directors and screenwriters such as Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Terry Gilliam helped shape “Sorry to Bother You”. Such works strive for shock value rather than dramatic intensity based on realism. In Riley’s film, there is almost no attempt to develop one of the equisapiens into a sympathetic and identifiable character such as the slaves in Pontecorvo’s “Burn” but there is no doubt that the sight of a man’s body with a horse’s head must have been enough to impress most film critics.

BlacKkKlansman

This film was “inspired” by the real life experience of a Black cop in Colorado Springs named Ron Stallworth who teamed up with a white cop in the 1970s to infiltrate the KKK. Since he was working undercover at the time to gain information on “extremist” groups like the local Black Student Union that had invited Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael), he decided to branch out and investigate the Klan. So the film sets up an equivalence between Kwame Ture and David Duke, a cast character playing a major supporting role in the film. Doesn’t this remind you a bit of how Trump and his “there were bad people on both sides in Charlottesville”?

Ironically, despite Boots Riley’s devastating critique of Lee’s film, they both rely on the same device—a Black man using a “white voice” to deceive someone on the other side of the line. In Stallworth’s case, it was to communicate with the KKK about future meetings, etc. Once a hook-up was arranged, a white (and Jewish) cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) would show up representing himself as Stallworth.

Stallworth’s initiative in penetrating the KKK elevated him in the eyes of the local police force who at first regarded him either paternalistically or in an openly racist manner. In the film’s conclusion, he uses a wire to record a racist cop who is dragged off to the delight of Stallworth and his white cop supporters. It is not exactly clear why he is being arrested since racism is completely legal, especially in Colorado.

Essentially, Lee’s film is a throwback to Stanley Kramer’s liberal, integrationist films of the 1960s like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Racism is depicted as a function of prejudice rather than institutions functioning to create a reserve army of labor. Lee is a skilled filmmaker but not much different than Michael Moore politically. In 2008, he hailed Obama’s victory as a sign that Washington would soon become a “Chocolate City”. Four years later when it was obvious that it remained vanilla under Obama, he expressed disappointment but still raised a million dollars in a fundraising party at his home for his re-election.

In his takedown of Lee’s film, Riley was a lot sharper than any dialog he wrote in “Sorry to Bother You”:

Look—we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines—we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Green Book

Like “BlacKkKlansman”, “Green Book” is based on the experiences of real-life characters but probably taking fewer liberties. In 1962, Jamaican-born pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) needed a driver for a tour that began in the north and that ended in the Deep South. He hired a bouncer from the Copacabana named “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who was out of work for two months while the Copa did some remodeling.

The film is reminiscent of old-fashioned TV comedy, especially “The Odd Couple” that paired a slovenly sportswriter and a prissy photographer in the same Manhattan apartment after both men had divorced their wives. Felix, the photographer, is always lecturing Oscar about his untidy habits while Oscar is working to wean Felix from his neurotic obsessions over this and that. In “Green Room”, the fastidious and well-educated Black artist is always remonstrating Tony Lip for his lapses. He wants to improve his diction—a Bronx Italian accent done well by Mortensen—as if he were Henry Higgins working on Liza Dolittle. Irritated at first, Tony Lip begins to warm up to his boss after seeing him wow audiences and having the courage to tour the Deep South. In a number of scenes, he confronts racists who have disrespected the world-class pianist even though the film starts with Tony Lip throwing out a couple of glasses that Black repairmen have drunk from while working to fix his refrigerator. If he can overcome his prejudice, why can’t the rest of Italians in the Bronx “get along” with Negros.

The film was directed by Peter Farrelly, a white filmmaker who has teamed up with his brother Bobby for comedies like “There’s Something About Mary”. This is essentially a road movie with a message of racial tolerance as likeable and old-fashioned as bowl of steel-cut oatmeal on a winter morning. It is the kind of film that a white audience in Birmingham, Alabama, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, can watch with pleasure even if on the next day they treat Black people with contempt. That’s what films like this are about, anyhow. An escape from a mean and violent world.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, this is a film directed by Barry Jenkins, the African-American who made the excellent “Moonlight” in 2016. Set in the early 1970s, it is love story about a 22-year old aspiring sculptor named Fonny and his 19-year old lover named Tish who grew up in Harlem, the children of working-class parents.

Like many kids in Harlem, especially those who took advantage of an inexpensive CUNY education, the two were anxious to live as Manhattanites and put the provincialism of Harlem behind them, especially that of their parents. Tish’s mother is a devout Baptist who practically disowns the two when the unmarried Tish becomes pregnant.

Fonny has a day job that allows him to enjoy a reasonably decent life (this was long before Manhattan turned into Rio de Janeiro) while Tish works behind the counter selling cologne at a place that looks like Bloomingdales. Their prospects brighten when an orthodox Jew named David decides to rent an empty loft to Fonny on Bank Street in the West Village that he can use for both shelter and artwork. Keep in mind that in the early 70s, this is how Soho and Tribeca got started. When Fonny is shocked to discover that a Jew was about to rent something far below market prices (was this an inadvertent stereotype?) to a Black man, he can’t help but ask why he was being treated so well. The reply: I was touched by the love you two shared.

Despite being poised on the brink of a new and free life, Fonny can’t escape the consequences of being Black, even in progressive New York. When a white cop, who has a grudge against Fonny for an earlier confrontation, arrests him on the flimsy charge of raping a woman on the Lower East Side, their dreams are dashed. He goes off to prison despite the best efforts of his mother to track down the woman in Puerto Rico in order to convince her testimony in court.

What makes the film notable is not so much the struggle for racial justice but the romance of the two young people that director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins conveys well, no doubt a function of his deep devotion to James Baldwin and this novel in particular. In an Esquire Magazine article, Jenkins expresses the challenges of making a film that combines the hopefulness of young love and the crushing social forces arrayed against it:

And yet so rarely has a protest novel contained within it as soaring a love as that between Tish and Fonny. To put it simply, the romance at the center of this novel is pure to the point of saccharine. It’s no wonder that, amongst the more scholarly of his readers, the book is held in lesser esteem. And yet even this is a testament to the magic trick Baldwin pulls here, and a key reason for the tone of our adaptation. We don’t expect to treat the lives and souls of black folks in the aesthetic of the ecstatic. It’s assumed that the struggle to live, to simply breathe and exist, weighs so heavily on black folks that our very beings need be shrouded in the pathos of pain and suffering.

The Hate U Give

Directed by the African-American George Tillman Jr., this is a Black Lives Matter-themed film based on a young adult novel written by another African-American, Angie Thomas (the screenplay was an adaptation written by a white woman named Audrey Wells, who died shortly before the film’s release.)

The main character is Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who lives in a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken neighborhood reminiscent of Ferguson, Missouri called Garden Heights but who goes to a predominantly white and wealthy school “on the other side of the tracks”. Her identity is split between the two places. She has a white boyfriend and hangs out with white girls, making little attempt to fill them in on how she lives in Garden Heights.

One night she goes to a party where she runs into an old friend from the neighborhood named Khalil who offers her a ride home. On the way there, they are stopped by a cop in a typical racial profiling manner who orders Khalil out of the car and to put his hands on the roof. With Starr sitting in the front seat and the cop examining Khalil’s license and registration, he turns around, sticks his head through the window to see how she is holding up. After she says okay, he grabs a hair brush from the front seat and begins resuming the stance the cop ordered him to take. When the cop spots the brush in darkness of the night, he mistakes it for a pistol and in “self-defense” fires three bullets into the youth who dies on the spot.

As the sole eyewitness to the killing, Starr has to choose between two identities. If she comes out as the only person who has a chance of bringing the cop to justice, she risks antagonizing her white friends in high school. One of them even repeats the “all lives matter” excuse for the cops.

Finally deciding that she had to do the right thing, she does a TV interview that charges the cop for being a lawless executioner as well as well as fingering a brutal gang in Garden Heights that is almost as much of a impediment to Black security as the out-of-control police department. As a Ferguson-type protest takes shape in her neighborhood, she reluctantly assumes leadership even as she has to contend with the gang members who want to punish her for the TV interview.

Whether it is a function of the young adult material it is based on or just the author’s inexperience, the main problem of the film is its predictability. Characters are defined and then act according to the role that they are assigned to. Nothing comes as much of a surprise.

That being said, it is of supreme importance that such a film can make its way into Cineplexes where a documentary on Ferguson would never appear. It is even more significant that the novel it is based on has sold 1.5 million copies, presumably to young Black people who have a voice speaking for their frustrations and anger that are heard nowhere else.

The author’s story is very much like that of young people in Ferguson or any other place where a cop killing triggered BLM protests. Born in 1988, Angie Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the city in which a progressive Democratic Party city government has encouraged the growth of cooperatives serving the Black community.

Having dreamt of becoming a writer from an early age and graduating from a Christian college in Mississippi with a BFA, she resolved to write such a novel after Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland on New Years Eve in 2009. In an interview with Ebony, Grant described what amounted to as a mission, something probably remote to the average University of Iowa Writers Workshop student:

As a Black woman, I feel like I have a unique experience that we don’t often see in media portrayals of the South. When you say, “Southern” or you speak about a Southern accent, there’s always that drawl and usually from White people. That’s what people associate with the South.

But we’re all different. The Black Southern accent is different. It’s small things like that, and then big things like being from Mississippi, specifically, and hearing the stories about Emmett Till, and being familiar with that from a very young age. Or knowing that I lived maybe three minutes away from Medgar Evers’ home, and that my mom heard the gunshot that killed him. Knowing that I live in a state where whenever somebody would fight for my rights or speak up for me, they were automatically deemed the enemy by the majority.

Whatever qualms I had about the film, I feel enriched by the experience of discovering that such writers exist.

Monsters and Men

Directed and written by the African-American Reinaldo Marcus Green, this film is also inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Based on the killing of loose-cigarette peddler Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 by a cop’s chokehold that inspired the protest call “I can’t breathe”, Green tells the story of three men who were impacted in one way or another by the fictionalized account of Garner’s death (in the film, it is a cop’s gun rather than a chokehold that costs the cigarette peddler his life.)

We first meet Manny Ortega, who like Starr is an eyewitness to the killing. He is hesitant to speak out not because it would diminish his status but because as a poor and underemployed Latino, he cannot afford to piss off the cops. Like Starr, he does the right thing.

Next we meet Dennis Williams, a Black cop who is struggling to stay behind the blue wall of silence that would free him from the burden of testifying against a colleague. Having been stopped by cops six times that year in racial profiling incidents, he has been pushed to the limit. (Williams is played by Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington, who also played the cop Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s film.)

Finally, there is Zyrick, a young Black man who is stopped on his way home from baseball practice in another racial profiling incident. For his father, an MTA worker, and Zyrick, baseball opens up the possibility of a lucrative career. When his own experience being stopped by the cops resonates with the killing of the cigarette peddler, Zyrick decides to take part in a BLM protest the night before he is supposed to take part in a game with baseball scouts eyeing prospects for the big leagues. When his father learns that he is going to take part in the protest, he lashes out him for losing his focus. It is nothing but baseball that is important. Black people have been killed by the cops for no good reason since the Civil War. The only answer is to mind your own business and stay out of their way.

The next day, Zyrick shows up at the baseball game with a shirt demanding justice for the slain peddler and takes a knee with other aspiring baseball pros.

In an interview with Remezcla, a website devoted to Latino culture and politics, Green—who is half Puerto-Rican—spoke for many young filmmakers of color anxious to use film to raise political awareness in the Black and Latino community:

This film is my form of activism, however small. I think that’s really what it’s about. It’s about baby steps. It’s about talking about it, continuing the dialogue, and trying to open people’s minds to an issue that really needs to be talked about. It’s happening all around us, we can’t turn a blind eye to the things that are happening to our people and our community. It’s important for us to just stay engaged as a community, the Latino community, the Black community, it’s important for us to come together. As a collective, we’re much stronger, and we need to support one another.

Life and Nothing More

Despite its minimal funding and its brief stay in the Film Forum, this film stands out for me as a major contribution to the body of work about Black Americans going back to classics like “Nothing but a Man”. It should show up eventually as VOD and when it does, don’t waste any time. It is truly powerful.

Using neorealist conventions heightened by a very gifted non-professional cast, the story is defined by the constraints imposed by capitalist society on a single mother named Regina working as a waitress, her troubled 14-year old son, and three year old daughter. Director Antonio Méndez Esparaza spent two years in Tallahassee interviewing single Black mothers to help him write the script for a film steeped in neorealist traditions.

When we first meet Regina, she is working as a waitress at the Red Onion restaurant somewhere in Florida when an African-American man named Robert tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her. Since her husband is doing time for aggravated assault, she is wary of all men. In a subsequent conversation with Robert, she puts him off by saying “fuck all men”. Not willing to take no for an answer, he approaches her again during her break on another day and breaks down her resistance. Since there are so few pleasures in her life, being taken out for dinner and shooting pool with him later is something that she looks forward to. That is the first step in cementing a relationship that finally ends up with him moving in with her and treating the three-year-old with tenderness.

The stumbling block is her son Andrew who is as hostile to adult men as his mother is initially but with less of an incentive to open up to a man he suspects of taking advantage of his mother’s yearning for company. An argument between his mother and Robert in the middle of the night leads to a confrontation in which Andrew pulls out a gravity knife with a warning to Robert to stand down. Fed up with lover and son alike, Regina throws both men out—at least for the evening.

All of these people are living on the knife’s edge. A loss of a job, an unplanned pregnancy or an arrest can push them into a bottomless pit. The authenticity of “Life and Nothing More” is astonishing. It has a documentary-like matter of factness that serves the narrative arc. Given the flammable nature of the social relations in the world occupied by the characters, a spark can set off a conflagration at any minute. It is reminder that if the anger and frustration of Black America ever gets turned at its real enemies, the class struggle of the future will make the sixties look like child’s play.

 

November 30, 2018

At Eternity’s Gate; Lust for Life

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 30, 2018

Last week, after watching a press screening of Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Vincent Van Gogh titled “At Eternity’s Gate”, I was so struck by its divergence from the memories I had of Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 identically themed “Lust for Life” that it struck me as worth writing about the two in tandem. While I have grave reservations about Schnabel’s politics and aesthetics, I can recommend his film that is playing in theaters everywhere that are marketed to middle-brow tastes, the kind of audience that listens to NPR and votes Democratic. These are the sorts of screeners I get from publicists throughout November to coincide with NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December, the “good”, Oscar-worthy films that Harvey Weinstein used to produce until he got exposed as a serial rapist.

Willem Dafoe is superb as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate” even though at 63 he can hardly evoke the almost post-adolescent angst of the artist who died at the age of 37. Like Willem Dafoe, Kirk Douglas not only bears a striking resemblance to Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” but was only 3 years older than the artist at the time of his death. Since “Lust for Life”, as the title implies, emphasizes turbulence, Douglas was just the sort of actor who could bring that vision of Van Gogh to life. In Minnelli’s adaptation of the Irving Stone novel, Van Gogh’s life was a succession of crises that finally became too much to bear.

Stone’s work faced the same obstacles as Van Gogh’s paintings that never sold in his lifetime. It was rejected by 17 publishers until its debut in 1934. Stone was not particularly known for his politics but did take the trouble to write a novel in 1947 based on the marriage of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate who had no use for socialism. The title was “Adversary in the House”, an allusion to her.

However, there must have been just enough politics in “Lust for Life” for screenwriter Norman Corwin to feature in his script. The first fifteen minutes or so of the film depicts Van Gogh as a lay priest in a coal-mining village in the region of Borinage who immerses himself into the daily life of super-exploited workers. As a hobby, he makes drawings of the miners and their families as a kind of homage to the people in need of what Marx called an opiate.

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