Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 16, 2018

The Mafia and the class struggle, part two

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,mafia — louisproyect @ 11:00 pm

(Apologies for not providing trailers for “Salvatore Giuliano” and “100 Steps” in English. There are none. However, the trailers can give you a flavor of the sort of intense drama you’ll find in the subtitled full versions, which are relatively easier to track down.)


Eleven years ago I went to a press screening at the Film Forum for the revival of “Mafioso”, a 1962 dark comedy directed by Alberto Lattuada. It was unlike any mafia film I had ever seen, either in the Scorsese/Coppola vein or comic fare like “Analyze This” and “Married to the Mob”.

It moved seamlessly from a satire on Sicilian customs in the village Calamo, which is dominated by a Godfather figure named Don Vincenzo, to the film’s climax when the main character, who had been visiting relatives in the village, was forced to carry out a hit on an American gangster–a total stranger to him. It was made clear to him by the gangster that if he did not follow orders, he and his family would be killed instead. As has been the case with the mafia going back to its origins in the 1860s, violence, extortion and comity are often mixed together. As Don Vito Corleone put it in “The Godfather”, “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse”.

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November 14, 2018

What They Had

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

A couple of weeks ago a publicist asked me to have a look at a documentary titled “Distant Constellation” set in an Istanbul old age home. I warned her that I had misgivings about such a film but would give it a shot since I have valued her efforts on behalf of non-commercial films. Within fifteen minutes, however, I realized that the film was too close to home. The residents of the nursing home were either suffering from dementia or unable to present a cogent account of their lives there. The title of the film derives from one of the elderly patient’s speculations about life on other planets.

The Guardian review of the film begins with a Philip Roth quote: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” That summed it up for me.

When the publicist asked me why I bailed on the film, I explained that it was too close to home. Two years ago my father-in-law Hasan, now deceased, got on a minibus in Istanbul without any idea where he was going. His wife Meral grew increasingly frantic in his absence until she got a phone call from a good Samaritan who had figured out that Hasan was suffering from dementia and asked him politely to show him his wallet, which he did. That led to the phone call and the realization that he could only go outside their building accompanied by the live-in caregiver. Until his death a few months ago, the stress of caring for him weighed heavily on both my mother-in-law and my wife. Massacre, indeed.

Until my mother’s death a decade ago, I visited her fairly regularly at the upstate nursing home she had been living in for two years or so. Until the day she died, my mom did not suffer from any cognitive deficits. Her problem was mostly circulatory, a function of never doing the slightest bit of exercise, not even walking. A visit was always a pleasant experience but compromised by the sight of so many patients her age suffering from dementia or stroke-induced paralysis. Massacre, indeed.

Yesterday I watched a screener for “What They Had”, a film that had been sent to me under consideration for NYFCO’s annual awards meeting in December. This is a narrative film about a family dealing with an elderly woman’s descent into the final stages of Alzheimer’s with her husband fighting to keep her at home while his son and daughter try to persuade him that the best thing would be for her to be placed in a nursing home.

The woman, named Ruth, is played by Blythe Danner, who was a close friend of mine at Bard College that I lost touch with after I graduated, which was the case with just about everybody I knew at Bard except for a former girlfriend and my close friend Jeffrey who is my regular chess partner and a dispenser of valuable but free psychological advice over the years.

As was also the case with Chevy Chase, who dated Blythe briefly at Bard, I have tried to follow her career for the past 53 years. This did not necessarily mean seeing some of the forgettable films or TV movies she appeared in over the years but at least reading any article covering her latest appearance. In her earliest roles, she played the ingenue, typically as in the Broadway play “Butterflies are Free”, where she was the ditzy next door neighbor of a young and handsome blind man.

It was this play that left her with the raspy voice that probably narrowed the range of characters she would play over the years. In an interview with Susan Wloszczyna on the Roger Ebert website, she explained how it happened: “I hurt my voice while doing my first Broadway play. I had a very high voice and I lowered it for my character. I didn’t know it would get me in trouble. So I’m stuck with a raspy voice.”

I remember Blythe before the raspiness kicked in. She was a great singer who could have made it as a recording artist. In 1965, I brought Bill Evans up for a solo concert at Bard and he agreed to accompany Blythe for a couple of songs, which was very generous for a celebrity like Bill.

Her parents gave her the name that befit her personality. She certainly was a “blithe spirit”, almost like one of Shakespeare’s fairies in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. To this day, I still have vivid memories of sitting on the lawn at Bard after smoking some pot and watching her and another theater major doing a highland fling just ten feet away. The sun shined on the two, with Blythe’s flaxen hair reflecting the sunbeams magically.

I used to sit alone in the dining commons at Bard, mainly because I felt anti-social most of the time. On numerous occasions, Blythe would join me at the table and confess her insecurities. She always felt inadequate academically and feared that people thought she was “ditzy”. I always tried to reassure her that she was very bright and level-headed but somehow I got the feeling that until she became a theater and film star, that feeling of inadequacy never disappeared.

Old age has a way of sneaking up on you. About five years ago, Blythe started doing commercials for Prolia, a medication for treating osteoporosis, an ailment she was suffering from herself.

It always felt strange to see the flaxen-haired ingenue of my youth appearing in such a commercial but that didn’t prepare me for “What They Had”, a story in which most of her dialog is off-kilter as you’d expect from her character. In one typical scene, when she hears the phone ringing, she comes back with an open stapler next to her ear, asking “Who’s there?” In another scene, she drinks the holy water in the Catholic church she, her husband and two children attend on a Sunday morning for old time’s sake. During the priest’s homily, she turns around and flips someone the finger for no apparent reason and then, a few minutes later, comes on sexually to her son. He is played convincingly—as always—by Michael Shannon. The daughter is played by Hilary Swank, who is more reluctant than Shannon’s character to place her in a home. Ruth’s husband is played by Robert Foster, an outstanding actor who captures the stubborn devotion his character has to a woman who can barely tell if he is her husband or not.

To be honest, “What They Had” is barely a step up from one of those Lifetime Cable “problem” movies that are geared to the network’s female audience. It was written and directed by the actress Elizabeth Chomko who was at least able to draw from personal experience in making the story so close to what families have to deal with when one of their number has to be institutionalized (there’s really no other word to describe it.) A slashfilm.com interviewer told her that the film came across as very personal. Chomko replied:

Yes. It is definitely personal—inspired by my grandparents, my family, and what we all went through coping with my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and loving her through all the subsequent memory loss and the ways in which it sort of—the caring for her—caregiving—the way in which it brought us to closer together and pulled us all apart. I think in the film everyone is reckoning with their memories and their own sense of time gone and past. I think when you start to witness someone losing their memories it really prompts—at least for me—a sense that memories are precious and that we take them for granted a little bit. So I think for all the characters, it prompts just a sense of coming of age. I think coming of age is something we do over the course of our life many times. I wanted to write something it felt like three generations kind of coming of age and in particular, the character that Hilary plays—a woman sort of reckoning with the decisions that she’s made and why she’s made them and does she want to continue down the path that’s led her on or not.

These strike me as very wise observations. Suffice it to say that the film embodies them even if it is not great filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination. You can expect the film to show up on VOD in a few months. As long as you don’t expect Orson Welles and as long as you can identify with the ordeal the family in the film have to deal with, it is worth watching.

Naturally, the question of dementia likely faces most of my readers, especially those closer to me in age than the average DSA’er. Over the past 10 years I find myself increasingly unable to remember the names of people, a “lapse” that is ubiquitous to senior citizens and not necessarily a sign that you will be drinking holy water at some point. As a way of doing sit-ups for my neurons, I play chess all the time on my computer and do the most difficult crossword puzzles I can find, especially the Saturday cryptic puzzles on the Wall Street Journal that would fry the brain of most people whatever their age. I also play a word game that does not require a pencil or a computer. I choose a category like jazz musician and then go through the alphabet trying to name as many as I can for each letter (Adderly, Ammons, Allen, Abrams, etc.)

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. it kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. So we are talking about a very frightening illness that will turn us into something like a zombie. The thought of losing your identity, your independence and your ability to use your mind productively is enough to keep you awake at night.

Two days ago, the NY Times reported on how “Dementia Is Getting Some Very Public Faces” prompted by the news that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had released a letter announcing that she’d been diagnosed with dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. The Times tries to put the best possible spin on how public acknowledgement of the disease can remove the stigma and reduce the isolation most patients have to endure but the real issue that is never confronted in such articles is the right to die. If someone still has a grip on reality but is just at the cusp of losing it, there should be an exit door that is available. Instead of forcing family members to spend their entire savings to keep a loved on in a nursing home long after they have no idea who they are, let alone their children or loved ones, people should be allowed to spare themselves the difficult choices forced upon the family in “What They Had”.

As should be obvious, the same reactionary forces that prevent women from controlling their own bodies also prevents us from ending our lives gracefully. If we lived under socialism, the expenses would be far less since the profit motive would be eliminated from the health industry. However, there is still the existential question that each of us face and that has to be resolved through our own free will. That takes a combination of Karl Marx and his contemporary Schopenhauer to navigate successfully.





November 7, 2018

Three outstanding documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

Under consideration are three outstanding documentaries, two from the 9th annual NY Documentary Film Festival that opens tomorrow and one available on iTunes.

As part of the film festival (Tuesday, Nov 13, 5:15pm and Wednesday, Nov. 14, 10:15am at the IFC Center), “Patrimonio” documents the struggle of fishermen in the small town of Todos Santos in Baja California in Mexico in defense of their livelihoods—and thus, their existence—against the Black Creek Corporation that was trying to impose a development called Tres Santos over the very beachhead they have used to launch their small fishing boats for over a century. The centerpiece of the development was a “Green” hotel that would appeal to people who read the NY Times Sunday Travel section in search of exotic or novel resort areas. Instead of gambling casinos and steak, you get yoga studios and vegan meals.

This development threatened their “patrimonio” as one activist fisherman puts it. If New York Film Critics Online did not restrict nominations to films that have only opened for general theatrical release, this would be my choice for best documentary of 2018.

“The Providers” refers to doctors and paramedics working out of a clinic in northeastern New Mexico that serves a desperately poor and neglected rural population. Seeing three of its staff members on their rounds reminds you that some people join the profession out of a love of humanity rather than the dollar. It also will be screened as part of the festival on Friday, November 9 at 5:30pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea and on Monday, November 12 at 12:45pm at the IFC Center.

Finally, on iTunes and as a DVD, is “Resistance at Tule Lake” that tells the long-neglected story of 12,000 Japanese Americans who stood up to FDR’s mass incarceration during World War II. Condemned as potential traitors, they were put into a concentration camp at Tule Lake Segregation Center, where they protested the attack on their rights as Americans, whether they were citizens or not.

Before Black Creek, an American corporation, set its sights on Todos Santos, it had created hotels and condos all along the Baja California coastline that would appeal to wealthy people looking for an alternative to the openly touristic beachfront hotels found in Acapulco or Miami Beach. To establish its credentials, it entered into a partnership with Colorado State University that built a campus at Todos Santos. The CSU’s website describes its mission: “Educating students and community members about sustainable practices in tourism, agriculture, and other subjects has become a cornerstone for Colorado State University’s Todos Santos Center in Baja California Sur (BCS), Mexico.” As I just told the director of this outlet of CSU, she and the snakes who own colonized Todos Santos belong in jail cells next to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

In 2004, David Harvey wrote an article titled “The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession” that built upon the insights of Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Accumulation of Capital”. Following Luxemburg, Harvey theorized that the primitive accumulation that Marx wrote about did not come to an end in the 18th century with peasants being victims of the Enclosure Acts or in the 19th century when slavery was abolished. It was an ongoing feature of capitalist exploitation. No other film I have ever seen depicts this tendency more than “Patrimonios”. Using the combined power of the Mexican courts, the cops, and the government agencies charged with the mission of protecting both the fisherman and the land and resources being threatened by Tres Santos’s hyper-development, the working people of Todos Santos were destined to end up like the vagabonds wandering the roads of 18th century England trying to find a way to survive. Or, for that matter, like the peasants who were made redundant by the tsunami of American corn entering Mexican markets after NAFTA, most of whom, it seems, ended up as dishwashers or restaurant delivery boys in New York. Or, even as members of a Mexican drug cartel.

Tres Santos or its Mexican affiliates in MILA, a corporation owned by the family of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the ex-President of Mexico who turned his country into a neoliberal hothouse, bother to follow Mexican law. The corruption at work in their land grab makes Donald Trump look like Ralph Nader. They refuse to turn over documents that supposedly gives them the right to build the new hotel and keep stonewalling the fisherman’s co-op who go through legal channels to validate them. Meeting after meeting is called to resolve the dispute but it is only the fishermen who show up, even when they have been convened by Mexican government bodies. When you see photos of the same officials hanging out with Tres Santos, you understand why. It was a massive conspiracy that saw the fishermen as beneath contempt. As their struggle mounts, including a blockade against construction crews, they repeatedly refer to the power that money gives their adversary. One of their wives says bitterly that Tres Santos shows the need for a new Mexican revolution.

They are led by John Moreno, an attorney with deep roots in Todos Santos who is both legally and politically astute. As you watch this stirring documentary, you sit at the edge of your seat wondering if he and the ostensibly weak forces behind him will overcome formidable odds. The suspense is as gripping as any Hitchcock movie.

“Patrimonio” is co-directed by two women, Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale. In the filmmaker statement, Jackson writes:

I have been involved in documentary filmmaking ever since I left MIT film school in 1971, and my career has been one where every project has been an immersion in a different reality. And a total immersion was the only way to get the intimate footage that Patrimonio required: long days on the boat with Rosario, long nights shooting the blockade, endless meetings and rallies and vigils and never knowing if the next day would bring an intimidating lawsuit or a devastating high tide, a new baby or the death of a patriarch. And over the course of those years of filming my connection to the place and its people only deepened to the point where in 2016 I left New York City after 35 years and am now a permanent resident of Todos Santos and the fight to preserve this pueblo magico has become personal.

“The Providers” follows physician’s assistant Matt Probst, nurse/practitioner Chris Ruge, and physician Leslie Hayes as they visit indigent people being served by El Centro, a chronically underfunded and understaffed clinic in Española.

No matter how marginal the patient, all three offer the kind of “bedside manner” that is often lacking in wealthier, cosmopolitan centers. When an elderly patient asks Chris Ruge for $10 to help meet expenses until his next social security check arrives, he gladly opens his wallet and his heart. Ruge speaks to each of his patients as if they were old friends even when most people would have cut ties with the alcoholic who appears to be a lost cause. While his visit to the man’s house might have been satisfied professionally simply by a physical exam, Ruge spends time offering counseling to help him get to the source of his problems. Since his wife committed suicide some years earlier, he appears unable to cope.

Despite his last name, Matt Probst is a Mexican-American who grew up not far from where the clinic is located. He feels a personal connection with the lost souls he treats because his own father and sister were addicts. Like Ruge, he is compassionate and patient. We see him making a pitch to high school and college students to enter the medical profession in one capacity or another since there was a need for skilled people in northeast New Mexico. The sad reality is that a lack of jobs forces many young people to move to cities, leaving mostly the unemployed and the elderly to stay behind.

Finally, Leslie Hayes understands the need to treat those addicted to opioids as suffering from an illness rather than as criminals or worse. We learn from her that Española, New Mexico has suffered from an opioid epidemic on a scale with any other town or city in places we associate with the plague, like West Virginia. In 2016, she wrote an article describing her approach:

As a family physician in a small town, I treat a lot of health conditions.

I treat high blood pressure and asthma. I treat the flu. I make sure small children get their vaccinations.

However, unlike most family physicians, I also treat patients with opiate addiction, or, as the medical world calls it, opiate use disorder.

Surprisingly to many people, they are the most satisfying patients I treat.

Even more surprisingly, I especially enjoy treating pregnant women.

In 25 years of practice, no one has ever thanked me for bringing their blood pressure under control. However, at least once a month, one of my patients with opiate use disorder thanks me for saving their life.

She, like the other two medical professionals, is the kind of doctor a socialist America would foster. Seeing this film is a reminder that human nature is good despite all evidence to the contrary.

“Resistance at Tule Lake” combines interviews with the elderly Japanese-Americans who were kept prisoner in one of FDR’s concentration camps with archival footage, including some shocking photos of army tanks that were deployed to suppress a non-violent prison revolt reminiscent of the armored vehicles that have shown up recently to intimidate or even kill Black Lives Matters protesters.

We learn from a remarkable spectrum of Tule Lake internees what they had to endure as their rights as citizens were being stripped during the anti-Japanese hysteria following Pearl Harbor. Among them is Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a renowned playwright and actor, who, when forced to fill out a “loyalty questionnaire”, refused to answer questions that implicitly questioned his citizenship. Rightfully refusing to them, he was charged with disloyalty, segregated with other “disloyals”, and even ostracized by other internees. Under pressure, he agreed to renounce his American citizenship and return to Japan on a boat with other “renouncees”, a fate that was a lesser evil to Tule Lake.

Needless to say, the film is both a badly needed chronicle of the Japanese-American experience during WWII as well as a reminder that Trump’s nativism was not a new phenomenon. As the most liberal president in American history, FDR was arguably much worse when it came to stigmatizing an entire nationality as “criminals or worse” as Trump might put it.

In 1959, with the help of attorney Wayne M. Collins, Kashiwagi had his United States citizenship restored. Kashiwagi would later dedicate his book “Swimming in the American: a Memoir and Selected Writings to Collins”, “who rescued me as an American and restored my faith in America”.

Collins son, named Wayne Jr., succeeded his father as a fighter for Japanese-American rights. He is seen speaking to an audience attending a ceremony where he received an award for his efforts. In an article for “Discover Nikkei (Japanese migrants and their ancestors) titled “Carrying the Torch: Wayne Collins Jr. on His Father’s Defense of the Renunciants”, Sharon Yamato writes:

I was fortunate to be at the biennial event ten years earlier in 2004 when the younger Collins had accepted an award on his father’s behalf from those who owed their very presence there to the man responsible for giving them back their citizenship. Collins’ son was responsible for taking on some cases his father left unfinished, including the defense of Iva Toguri who had been falsely accused of being a Japanese spy. As tears of joy and cheers of gratitude filled the auditorium, the younger Collins graciously accepted the award.

I remember thinking what a toll the relentless and selfless work that his father undertook must have taken on a young boy’s life. Yet he calmly spoke of his father’s around-the-clock work schedule and volatile temper as if they were necessary demons of a man fighting for something as important as democracy.

This is the same Wayne Collins Jr. that has been a Marxmail subscriber for the past 15 years or so. When I created the list, it was in the hopes that it would serve as a pole of attraction for people like Wayne. Seeing him the film is a welcome reminder that it has played a meaningful if modest role in uniting the left.

November 2, 2018

A Private War; Under the Wire

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm


On February 22, 2012, London Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin and her photographer Paul Conroy were in the ground floor of a multi-story building in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs, Syria, that was being used as a press center when a shell scored a direct hit that left her dead and Conroy badly wounded. Two new films are focused on their experience as the last foreign journalists reporting from Homs that was the first of the liberated areas to be reconquered by the regime mostly as a result of the asymmetric warfare that has drowned the revolution in blood. “A Private War” that opens in NY, Washington, and Los Angeles theaters today (screening information: https://www.aprivatewarfilm.com/) is a narrative film with biopic elements hoping to explain how a 56-year old woman with bad knees could have ended up in such a precarious situation. “Under the Wire”, a documentary that opens at Village East Cinema on November 16th, is much more Paul Conroy’s story and serves as a complement to the narrative film. Watching the two in tandem will remind you of the need for an independent press that is committed to telling the story of people under siege, particularly the women and children who Colvin made it her life’s mission to defend through her journalism.

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October 26, 2018

The Bread Factory; Monrovia, Indiana

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

Under consideration are two distinctly uncommercial films that will appeal to those with unconventional tastes, i.e., the sort of people who read this blog on a regular basis.

“The Bread Factory” is a two-part narrative film that opened today at the Village East Cinema. This means that you are in for a four-hour drama about the struggle of a couple of elderly lesbians to keep a performance space specializing in classical fare such as Euripides’s “Hecuba” going in a fictional town called Checkford. For decades they have routinely received funding from the school board that viewed the Bread Factory (named after the factory that was converted into a warren of theaters and workshops) because it allowed schoolchildren to learn how to make films, act, write poetry, etc. in the evenings and weekends.

This year it is different. A new performance space to be run by a couple of Chinese performance artists named May and Ray has opened up in town that has convinced the school board to spend its money on something more in line with changing global tastes and priorities. Doesn’t everybody know that China is the future?

Director Patrick Wang is well-equipped to treat such a dramatic conflict because he is both a trained economist and playwright. Six years ago I reviewed his first film “In the Family” that depicted the custody battle of a gay man for the right to raise the son of his domestic partner who dies in an automobile crash. From my review:

The story behind the making of the movie is almost as dramatic as the movie itself. Patrick Wang graduated from MIT with a degree in Economics and a concentration in Music and Theatre Arts. According to the press notes, he started out professionally as an economist. In that capacity, he studied energy policy, game theory, and income inequality at the Federal Reserve Bank, the Harvard School for Public Health and other organizations.

Using money that he had saved from such an establishment job, he put a half-million dollars into the film and stubbornly tried to get a theatrical release even though distributors were not interested. Fortunately, the quality of the work sold itself and New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to see something that not only is top-notch film-making but an eloquent but carefully modulated statement about the essential humanity of same-sexers.

Stubbornly? That is exactly what characterizes the two women who run the Bread Factory as played by Tyne Daly, the former star of the hit TV series “Cagney and Lacey”, and Elisabeth Henry, who has never appeared in a film before. For the two, it is not just a question of livelihood. If the Bread Factory does not get funded, they become unemployed septuagenarians. But it is also a challenge to their deeply held beliefs about what constitutes art. Although May and Ray are obvious charlatans, it is just as obvious that such people command the kind of attention so prevalent in a cultural world anxious to exploit the latest trends.

When I began watching the film, I had a sense of déjà vu. There was something about the Bread Factory that seemed awfully familiar. Putting the film on pause, I took a look at the press notes and discovered how Wang got the idea for “The Bread Factory”:

When I was on tour with my first film, one of the places that invited me to come and speak was a theater in Hudson, New York. I had never been there before, but the moment I stepped inside, I knew the place. It was like all the small community theaters where I first learned to put on plays. The two women who ran the place reminded me that it was almost all women directors, writers, and designers who taught me in my early years. The film began with those very warm memories. They don’t provide the characters and plots, but they are the spirit behind it all.

I know that theater well. I spent a weekend in Hudson last year to see a screening of “Ketermaya” at Stageworks, a 40,000 square foot performance space just like the Bread Factory that had been a candle-making factory at one point. For me, it symbolizes the kind of grass-roots support for the arts that defies the prevailing cultural norms of a civilization in deep decline. Kudos to Patrick Wang for making a film that recognizes the importance of such flowers that bloom in the desert.

Now 88, Frederick Wiseman has just made his 47th film, a documentary titled “Monrovia, Indiana” that like every other is in his patented cinéma vérité style. Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, it is a profile of the people living in a small, farming town that would seem to fit the Red State profile. In 2008, Barack Obama spoke of such people: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Wiseman wisely chose not to turn this into the sort of film a Michael Moore would make that would be equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel. Instead, he allows the common folk to represent themselves in Mason Lodge meetings, church services, shopping in a gun shop, making small talk in restaurants, deliberating in town council meetings, etc. You become a fly on the wall learning about people who are as remote in their own way from the lives of most of my readers as would be the Yanomami in Brazil.

Ironically, I grew up in an area not that different from Monrovia, even though the lives of others still remained a secret to me. I am referring to the Christians who owned farms in Sullivan County and who hunted deer, went to church on Sunday and drank at roadhouses. For a Jew, my world was that of shopkeepers, synagogues and ski hills.

In the press notes, Wiseman explained why he decided to make the film:

I thought a film about a small farming community in the Midwest would be a good addition to the series I have been doing on contemporary American life. Monrovia, Indiana appealed to me because of its size (1,063 residents), location (I have never shot a film in the rural Midwest) and the shared cultural and religious interests within the community. During the nine weeks of filming the residents of Monrovia were helpful, friendly and welcoming and gave me access to all aspects of daily life. Life in big American cities on the east and west coasts is regularly reported on and I was interested in learning more about life in small town America and sharing my view.

That an 88-year old filmmaker would express the need for “learning more” about this distinctly odd society we are living in should be an inspiration just not for other filmmakers but those of us interested in changing it.

October 24, 2018

Life and Nothing More

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

Opening at the Film Forum today, “Life and Nothing More” shares the title of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1992 narrative film about the aftermath of the 1990 earthquake in Iran that cost the lives of 30,000 citizens. Antonio Méndez Esparaza’s film, while likely not an homage to Kiarostami’s masterpiece, shares its compassion for victims but on another fault line, that of the racial and class divide of contemporary Florida.

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 working as a waitress, her troubled 14-year old son, and three year old daughter. Fifty years ago, when I was working as a welfare worker in Harlem, I sat by the side of a 28-year old mother of four in her hospital bed trying to convince her stay in bed since doctors warned that if she checked herself out, another heart attack would cost her life. Through her sobs, she kept asking why she had to suffer so much. Unlike Job, her suffering and the suffering of the single mom in Esparaza’s powerful film is not a test of their faith by God but the results of wage slavery magnified by racism.

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 crevice that is social in nature rather than geological as was the case in Iran in 1990. In a high school class on “Hedda Gabler”, my teacher Fred Madeo, a leftist who used to write letters to the Guardian Newsweekly, told us that when we see a pistol in the first act, a seed is planted in our minds to expect that pistol to be fired before the play has ended. The gravity knife in “Life and Nothing More” plays the same role.

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.

Early in the film, Regina is out in the parking lot with two other waitresses, one white and the other Black, taking a cigarette break and discussing the 2016 elections. They agree with each other that whoever is elected, their lives won’t change.

Let me conclude with the director’s compelling statement in the press notes, worthy of citation in its totality:

Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves, Rome, Open City), the father of neorealism and perhaps its most important writer, expressed the following in his 1952 “Some Ideas on the Cinema” interview:

The most important characteristic of neorealism is to realize that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. It has now been accepted that reality is hugely rich, and that to be able to look directly at it is enough. The artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.

In my film Life and Nothing More, with all major roles played by non-professional actors, we aimed to follow those principles and give a voice to those in desperate circumstances. It is a philosophy employed in my previous film, Aquí y Allá, and one I am again devoted to exploring. Their sole presence on screen is an act of political resistance. With each of their actions, or with all of their actions, they shout, whisper and cry: “We are here. This is our life and who we are.”

Likewise the script was inspired by extensive interviews and conversations with individuals, similar to those portrayed in the film. In addition, we established an ongoing dialogue with local judges, public defenders, educational and counseling professionals, as well as other key personnel involved in the legal system. While it is a fictional narrative, the film is as true to life as possible thanks to their collective stories.

The film has changed our lives and understanding of the world around us, and it has been a rewarding and touching journey; we hope it will change other people’s perspectives as well. I make films to understand realities unlike my own. I don’t start a film with self- reflection but, instead with curiosity, admiration and a sense of the political nature of film. I am a stranger here in the United States, and a stranger to the world of the film’s characters. I am the guest of my non-professional actors, and they will guide me. It is a privilege for me to be able to watch with the actors how the film will unfold.

October 19, 2018

Lost Village; Fail State

Filed under: Academia,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

Just by coincidence, two new documentaries drive a stake into the heart of very different forms of higher-educational chicanery. Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, Roger Paradiso’s “Lost Village” is a no-holds-barred assault on NYU for its role in turning Greenwich Village into a wasteland of empty stores, CVS’s, banks, and fast food emporiums while simultaneously making its student body pay for its excesses, driving female students to turn to prostitution to keep their studies going. Also opening today in Los Angeles’s Laemmle theatre and at the Maysles theater in New York next Friday is “Fail State”, an investigative report on for-profit colleges. Of keen interest to CounterPunch readers, neither film leaves the Democratic Party unscathed. Despite his liberal pretensions, Mayor Di Blasio bestows his blessings on NYU’s scorched earth tactics in the Village while Democrats show little interest in putting the kibosh on for-profit colleges that both Obama and Trump sanctioned, the first commander-in-chief in typically triangulation mode and the second with the same kind of cynical boosterism that characterizes his criminal regime.

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October 5, 2018

The Great Buster: A Celebration

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in New York is a documentary on the life and work of Buster Keaton titled “The Great Buster: A Celebration”. Celebration is the operative term since it is a heart-felt tribute to a great comedian and filmmaker whose best films were made in the 1920s and stopped abruptly just at the time “talkies” began. What happened to Keaton? Why didn’t his career continue to flourish? We learn from Peter Bogdanovich, who produced, directed and was the narrator of the film, that it was studio executives at MGM who were responsible.

To understand what happened, it is best to consider a more recent example of how commercialism can trump art. In many ways, Jackie Chan was the Buster Keaton of our era. In dozens of films made in Hong Kong, he combined comedy and action in films that capitalized on the haplessness of his character who always triumphed in the end. Like other highly successful Hong Kong cinema luminaries such as John Woo, he was lured by the big bucks to begin making Hollywood films that were lead-footed duds even if they made money. In Keaton’s case, the films he made for MGM were so awful that they effectively destroyed his career. Additionally, it was his own alcoholism and the collapse of a marriage that led to his being hospitalized by what they used to call a “nervous breakdown”. He ended up being taken to a mental hospital in a straightjacket evoking the same fate of Jonathan Winters years later. In such cases, an abundance of talent can often cause collateral damage in a world that does not appreciate the comedian’s gift.

While the film was certainly obligated to tell this part of his story, most of it is upbeat and a treat to anybody young or old who has never seen a Keaton film. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton made films that people will be enjoying centuries from now while Judd Apatow will likely be forgotten a few years after he has given up the ghost. Like Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton did all of his own stunts that were memorable not just for the great physical agility they took but how they served the narrative arc and character development. By contrast, the visual gags of most modern comedies are just thrown in after the fact to make sure the audience does not fall asleep.

Buster Keaton got started in vaudeville just like WC Fields, the Marx Brothers and other great comedians of the 20s and 30s. He started performing as a young kid whose parents integrated him into their act as the butt of what appeared to be child abuse. They threw him around mercilessly to the point that they were arrested for cruelty to children on occasion. However, he and his parents were skilled at making things look much worse than they really were, like professional wrestlers today. We see Keaton showing another comedian how to take a fall at one point, showing him how extended hands can soften the blow. Of course, just like professional wrestlers, he often suffered injuries carrying out a stunt. In one of them, he suffered a broken neck that he lived with for decades until a doctor asked him how he got it. Keaton replied that he had no idea he had a broken neck.

Between the thirties and forties, Keaton was a sad, neglected figure—a comic version of the character dramatized in Michel Hazanavicius’s neo-silent film “The Artist”. Things turned around in the fifties when he began making commercials and appearances on various TV shows, including Ed Sullivan’s variety show. None of them, of course, could compare to the great films he made in the 20s but they at least allowed him to live in comfort with his wife Eleanor who comes across as a guardian angel.

Eleanor Keaton was a good friend of Richard Lewis who is among the comedians that pay tribute to Keaton in the film. We hear Mel Brooks acknowledge Keaton as a major influence on his own classic comedies. Other filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Quentin Tarantino having little connection to comedy describe Keaton as a great director, even transcending the comedy genre. One of the most unexpected fans is none other than Samuel Beckett who made a 1965 short titled “Film” that Keaton was happy to star in, even though he admitted he had no idea what it was about. Like just about everything else that once appeared on film, it can now be seen on the Internet and even for free.

September 26, 2018

July 22; Oklahoma City

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

Within ten minutes or so of the press screening for “July 22”, a narrative film about Anders Behring Breivik’s mass murder of young social democrats on the island of Utoya seven years ago on that very date, the narrative style was so unique and so effective that I was sure that this powerful film was made by the same man who made “United 93”. Like “United 93”, which told the story of the 9/11 hijacking  on the one plane that failed to hit its target, “July 22” is an understated, documentary-like account of an incident that lends itself to melodrama. Paul Greengrass, the British director and screenwriter for both films, does not make movies that deliver cheap thrills. Instead, you will get a more intense experience for the simple reason that it is more lifelike.

As the film begins, we see the crosscutting of scenes with Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) assembling the weapons he will need to launch a one-man war on “Cultural Marxism” and his target, the young people singing leftist folk songs around a campfire, in a meeting to discuss politics or playing soccer. You get the same sense of impending doom that was dramatized in “United 93”, a film that I panned upon first seeing but have grown to appreciate after further viewings on cable. Greengrass made little attempt in “United 93” to explain what led the hijackers to such extreme measures and follows suit in “July 22”. We never see any flashback explaining what turned Breivik into a killer but should know enough by now about the white supremacists on the rise everywhere to know it does not matter that much. Unfortunately it is ubiquitous. Clearly, he understood only a documentary could have unraveled the evolution of Salafist or neo-Nazi terrorism and that a narrative film was only charged with the task of creating powerful human drama. On that basis, he has succeeded admirably.

Most of you are probably aware of Breivik’s attack at Utoya but that was actually the second act on that bloody day. He began by detonating a bomb inside a van in front of the building where Norway’s Prime Minister had an office. It killed 8 people in a prelude to the massacre that would take place in an hour or so. He used the same ingredients that Timothy McVeigh used in his terror attack on an office building in Oklahoma City and for about the same reason: to launch a one-man war against the left. Dressed in a police uniform, Breivik showed up at a pier on the mainland near Utoya and put in a call to be ferried to the island to provide security for the young people. Since Norway was on high alert after the bombing, the ferry boat pilot assumed he was legitimate. But when the camp director and security met him when he got off the boat, they became suspicious after he could not answer questions about his credentials. This led him to kill his first two victims.

Next Breivik roams the island shooting the unarmed and frantic teens, taking the lives eventually of 69 campers. We share the horror of a group of about six young people who are clinging to a rocky ledge halfway between a cliff at the edge of the water and the shore below. Before long, Breivik spots them and opens fire as they run panic-stricken along the beach. Two are brothers: Viljar and Torje Hanssen, whose mother is the Labour Party mayor of a town in the far north. Viljar, the older brother, is felled by five bullets from Breivik’s automatic rifle. As his brother kneels over him in both grief and fright, Viljar tells him to run for his life.

Viljar is the hero of the film, even though he is not an action hero in a drama that could not possibly supply one. We see him going through an agonizing recovery that included repeated surgeries that stopped short of extracting the bullet fragments close to his brainstem. The head surgeon worried that in trying to remove them, his patient’s brain would be even more damaged than it already was, if not prove fatal. In fact, Viljar was given the bad news that a shifting fragment could end his life at any moment.

Viljar is played by Jonas Strand Gravli and will certainly get my nomination for best actor of 2018, especially in portraying the real life efforts of the young man to become mobile enough to testify against Breivik in the courtroom. Like everybody else in the cast, he is Norwegian even though he, like the rest, speak English. This was an odd choice by Greengrass and perhaps calculated to avoid the subtitles that are the bane of so many people.

Most of the film crosscuts once again between Breivik’s interaction with his lawyer, a Norwegian social democrat, and Viljar’s heroic efforts to make a life for himself under Job-like conditions. We know about the 69 fatalities of July 22, 2011 but a lot less about the 209 who were injured. As so often is the case, especially with automatic rifles, the wounds can inflict great pain through the remainder of the victim’s life.

In the press notes, Greenglass explains why he made this film:

I originally wanted to make a film about the migrant crisis. And I spent a fair amount of time researching what was happening in places like Lampedusa in southern Italy, and the realities of people trafficking.

But the more I worked on it, the more obvious it became that fear of migration, together with continuing economic stagnation, was driving a profound change in our politics.

The door was being opened to political extremism, across Europe. Across the West. With dangerous consequences I fear…

That’s what lead me to make this film – because Anders Breivik and Norway shows us the consequences of this process in dramatic terms, and in ways relevant to all of us, wherever we live.

Breivik saw himself – in his extreme narcissism – as raising the battle standard of extreme right-wing rebellion across the West.

But the way the people of Norway responded after the attacks, which is what our film is really about – the way politicians, lawyers and most importantly those families caught up in the violence responded – can inspire all of us with their dignity and their tenacious commitment to democracy.

“July 22” opens on Netflix and in theatres on October 10. Look for its arrival then.

Suffice it to say that the same socio-economic conditions that drove Breivik to carry out mass murder in 2011 exist today in the USA. Furthermore, they were also present when the American counterpart of Anders Behring Breivik carried out a similar attack on April 19, 1995. I speak here, of course, about Timothy McVeigh whose bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured another 680.

To understand what drove him to such a murderous assault, I strongly recommend the documentary “Oklahoma City” that I watched a couple of months ago as a screener for the 2017 NYFCO awards meeting. Since it is now streaming on Netflix and on Youtube, don’t hesitate to view a film that will help you understand the neo-Nazi movements of twenty to thirty years ago that were much more lethal in their intentions than any that have shown up in Charlottesville or elsewhere more recently.

Unlike the followers of Richard Spencer et al, these groups were organized specifically as militias and were ready to open fire on anybody who stood in their way. However, McVeigh’s terrorist attack was beyond the scope of what was on their political agenda at the time just as was the case in Norway seven years ago. Indeed, an ultraright leader called to testify in Breivik’s defense described him as a mad man. Very few people considered McVeigh as a hero, except himself. As homicidal narcissists, McVeigh and Breivik stand alone.

Most of the groups that were in McVeigh’s orbit have faded from the scene but at the time they were involved in major confrontations with the authorities. We see footage of shootouts between the cops and various ultrarightists that predictably led to the latter being mowed down and consequently attaining martyr status for their supporters. McVeigh identified closely with the militia leaders under siege and saw every gun duel as proof that the government was the enemy of the people. In 1992, McVeigh identified closely with Aryan Nation member Randy Weaver who was in a stand-off with ATF officers surrounding his heavily fortified home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Weaver, who had failed to show up in court for a firearms violation, saw himself as above the law basically. The view that the state was illegitimate was widespread among ranchers and survivalists in the Northwest, with the latest occurrence taking place over Ammon Bundy’s armed occupation of federal land two years ago.

But it was Waco that pushed McVeigh over the edge. In 1993, the religious cult Branch Davidians were suspected of stockpiling weapons and once again the ATF arrived to arrest its leader David Koresh, who became a martyr to the ultraright just like Randy Weaver.

After witnessing the siege turn deadly, mostly against the cult members, McVeigh decided to begin preparing for his revenge against an out-of-control federal government. Obviously, we are in a much different situation today. Instead of Janet Reno and Bill Clinton serving as Satanic figures to American white supremacists, we have a White House that is hailed as its champion. The victims are not people seen as advancing the interests of a socialist or liberal state such as young social democratic campers or government workers in Oklahoma City. Instead, they are the immigrants that both the Norwegian and American governments are using as a scapegoat. Today, Norway is ruled by the Conservative Party whose leader Erna Solberg warns that there is “no free entry into Europe”. For those hoping that the USA can become more like a Scandinavian country, this is not good news nor is it good news coming out of Sweden that the Sweden Democrats (a misnomered neo-Nazi party) is on the upswing. Ultimately, the best way to confront the ultraright is by drawing clear class lines and fighting for social justice by any means necessary. If that sounds like extremism, that’s to be expected in a period where moderation only leads to further erosions of constitutional and human rights.


September 21, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9

Filed under: comedy,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm


Michael Moore fans will be happy to hear that “Fahrenheit 11/9”, which opens today at theaters everywhere, is his best film in years, even in spots achieving the brilliance of “Roger and Me”. As pure entertainment, it is on a par with the best of Saturday Night Live, the Stephen Colbert show or any other pop culture attempts to rally people against Donald Trump even if it is unlikely that any such comedy so wedded to the Democratic Party will have any effect.

The film is a blunderbuss attack on the Trump administration and the Democratic Party establishment that includes Bill and Hillary Clinton. Even Barack Obama gets the Michael Moore treatment in an obvious display of buyer’s remorse. If you’ve seen the 2009 “Capitalism, a Love Story”, you might recall that the film portrays him as a knight in shining armor. Two days after Obama was elected for his first term Moore said, “The Republicans aren’t kidding when they say he’s the ‘most liberal’ member of the Senate. … He is our best possible chance to step back from the edge of the cliff.” In keeping with the general drift of the left, Moore now regards him as a total sell-out. In a lengthy segment on the Flint water crisis, we see Obama as a total jack-ass making a “joke” at a mass meeting of parents worried sick about their children’s health by asking for a glass of water. He repeats this stunt at another meeting with doctors and community leaders.

For Moore, the original sin was Bill Clinton becoming the equivalent of a moderate Republican in his first term. Since organized labor was not as powerful as it was in the past, especially in places like Moore’s hometown Flint, Clinton decided to cater to big business that would provide the necessary funding for him to be elected and then re-elected. This meant putting an end to Glass-Steagall, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other policies falling under the rubric of neo-liberalism.

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