Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 21, 2019

Shtisel

Filed under: Jewish question,television — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

Over the past month, I watched seasons one and two of “Shtisel”, an Israeli soap opera (for the last of a better term) about haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews living in Jerusalem. It has little to do with Israeli politics or society since the characters disdain the Zionist project entirely. In season one, Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, the bullheaded patriarch of the Shtisel clan, decides to prevent the young students at the yeshiva where he teaches from watching the air show of the Israeli air force to their dismay. His son Akiva, who teaches there as well, overrules his father and allows the kids to watch the planes through the yeshiva windows. This should not be interpreted as his openness to Zionism, only his “softness” to the kids. He has zero interest in politics. All his energy is focused on drawing and painting, “hobbies” frowned upon in the Haredi world. The conflict between father and son provide most of the tension in this stellar drama. On a personal level, you are drawn into their test of wills but on a larger canvas, this is the central drama of the ultra-orthodox everywhere in the world, one between the closed, ritualistic and suffocating social norms and the yearning of young orthodox Jews to taste the forbidden pleasures of the outside world.

None of the characters in Shtisel are played by the Haredi themselves, an outcome dictated by their disdain for television entertainment, especially one that was critical of their values. Dov Glickman, who plays the father, is a veteran Israeli actor who began his career performing in the IDF’s naval revues. His son is played by Michael Aloni, who also played one of the cops in “Our Boys”. Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky conceived the idea for the show and have co-written the scripts. They bring a level of realism that you might expect from men who grew up in an ultra-orthodox family.

If you are a Jew, “Shtisel” might resonate with you more than the average viewer but rest assured that once you get past the oddities of Haredi life (they pray before drinking a glass of water), you will find each episode immediately recognizable and touching. For example, in season one Akiva has fallen head over heels in love with a woman who is probably 7 years older than him and widowed twice. Since the Haredi use matchmakers often given instructions to bring together a man and woman together based on traditional values, the idea of Rabbi Shtisel’s son marrying an older woman and one who had two husbands dying on her was not one he would tolerate. He must have taken Tina Turner at her word when she sang, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Once you get past the ultra-orthodox parameters of the conflict, you soon realize that Akiva’s determination to marry the woman he loves rather than one his father deems “appropriate” is basic to family dramas of any religion or race. What makes “Shtisel” so amazing is its ability to make the narrowly particular so universal.

For those who have seen the 2017 American film “Menashe”, you will immediately recognize its kinship with the Israeli TV series. What made “Menashe” so exceptional was the willingness of an American Haredi man (Menachem Lustig) to take the leading role of a widower who will have to accept his son becoming part of another observant family unless he remarries. Like “Shtisel”, matchmaking is a key part of the drama. I consider “Menashe” a masterpiece and urge you to see it on the usual streaming services including YouTube.

In my review, I stated:

Like John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever”, Menashe has a low-paying job as a clerk in a retail store—in his case a small supermarket owned by a fellow Hasid. He owes his landlord back payments on rent and is constantly hitting up his boss for loans. In the first hint that the film is not romanticizing Hasidic life, Menashe argues with his boss about selling unwashed lettuce to a Hasidic housewife, a violation of strict Jewish dietary laws. He is told that the store’s profits are more important than following scripture.

Among the key characters in “Shtisel” is Shulem’s brother Nuchem who has returned to Jerusalem from  Belgium where he runs various businesses, much of which seem to be bending ethical rules of one sort or another. When one of them is on the verge of failure, he implores Shulem to sign for a loan to keep it afloat. Shulem agrees but only on one condition. His brother has to sign a statement acknowledging his refusal to live up to his responsibilities as a son. He left it up entirely to Shulem to look after their ailing mother, a situation obviously not restricted to the ultra-orthodox.

Judaism is an odd religion. It is based on the need to carry out “mitzvahs”, which means commandments. So, when I was growing up, you frequently heard something as a “real mitzvah” in the sense of being charitable or benign in the Christian sense, like Jesus attending to lepers. However, for the ultra-orthodox, the mitzvah would be something like saying a prayer before drinking a glass of water or wearing side curls—acts having little to do with ethics.

In 2001, I read a book titled “Postville” by Stephen Bloom that told the story of the Rubashkins, a Lubavitcher family that had taken ownership of a meatpacking plant in Iowa in order to turn it into a major purveyor of kosher meat. Bloom, who is a secular Jew and writing professor at the U. of Iowa, ingratiated himself into their world and spent many evenings with them drinking vodka and sharing feasts at Friday night shabbat dinners.

Even if they followed every single mitzvah to the letter, these were people of the deepest moral failings. Hundreds of undocumented immigrants offered accounts of Rubashkin fostering a hostile workplace that included 12-hour shifts without overtime pay, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and sexual harassment.

Sentenced to 27 years for his crimes, Sholom Rubashkin’s sentence was commuted by Trump in 2017. No doubt Jared Kushner helped persuade his father-in-law to free the monster because his understanding of the “mitzvah” was the same as the packing house owner. Just say your prayers and you will be “righteous”, whatever that means. Kushner has donated $250,000 to the Lubavitcher movement that unlike the Haredi depicted in “Shtisel” sees Israel as evidence of God’s will.

In 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu was running for his first term as prime minister, the Lubavitchers ran a costly campaign with the slogan. “Netanyahu. It’s good for the Jews.” The campaign was financed by Josef Gutnick, a wealthy Australian businessman with close ties to the late Lubavitcher rabbi and a major supporter of the settlement movement.

On September 7th, the Sunday Times Book Review covered Times reporter Bari Weiss’s new book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”. The reviewer was Hillel Halkin, a rightwing Zionist who found her attempts to synthesize liberalism and Zionism laughable. Halkin is a regular contributor to The New York Sun, a neoconservative newspaper that was launched by Conrad Black in 2001 as an alternative to The New York Times. Black was found guilty of financial fraud in 2007 and sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison.

Halkin’s review was in keeping with tendencies both in the USA and in Israel to align Judaism with reactionary politics. In the case of Israel, of course, the term reactionary is relative. Even under the most “liberal” Zionist government, Israel was already moving rapidly toward consolidating an apartheid state. Halkin understands this tendency and fails to understand why Weiss does not. It would occur to me that before very long, the split in Judaism will become so deep that the two camps will begin to consider each other as mortal enemies. Halkin sounds like he wants to “bring it on”:

Weiss fails to realize that she herself is an example of the wishful thinking about Judaism that is ubiquitous among American Jewish liberals. One might call this the Judaism of the Sunday school, a religion of love, tolerance, respect for the other, democratic values and all the other virtues to which American Jews pay homage. This is a wondrous Judaism indeed — and one that has little to do with anything that Jewish thought or observance has historically stood for. “We’ve always been there,” Weiss approvingly quotes a friend of hers, hurt to the quick by the proposed banning of “Jewish pride flags” at the 2019 Washington Dyke March. Always? As if the right to define oneself sexually as one pleases were a cause Jews have fought for over the ages!

As a matter of historical record, it was Greek and Roman high society, not the Jews, that practiced and preached polymorphous sexual freedom. Judaism fiercely opposed such an acceptance of sexual diversity, against which it championed the procreative family, the taming of anarchic passions, and the cosmically ordained nature of normative gender distinctions that goes back to the first chapter of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image. … Male and female created he them.” And while we’re at it, it was the Greeks, not the Jews, who invented democracy. What mattered to Jews throughout nearly all of their history (and still does to a considerable number of them today) was the will of God as interpreted by religious authority, not free elections.

Judaism as liberalism with a prayer shawl is a distinctly modern development. It started with the 19th-century Reform movement in Germany, from which it spread to America with the reinforcement of the left-wing ideals of the Russian Jewish labor movement. As much as such a conception of their ancestors’ faith has captured the imagination of most American Jews, it is hard to square with 3,000 years of Jewish tradition. Weiss has delivered a praiseworthy and concise brief against modern-day anti-Semitism, but if she thinks this long tradition is ultimately compatible with contemporary American liberal beliefs, she might want to take a closer look. Honestly regarded, Judaism tells another story.

October 18, 2019

Our Boys

Filed under: Counterpunch,Palestine,television — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 18, 2019

Last month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a boycott against Israel’s channel 12 for producing the HBO mini-series “Our Boys.” He described it as anti-Semitic and slandering Israel internationally. This month I watched “Our Boys” and can recommend it not only as a docudrama but as a brutally honest retelling of how the Israeli cops apprehended 3 West Bank settlers that murdered a 16-year old Palestinian boy. They were seeking to avenge Hamas’s killing of 3 teen-aged boys who were settlers like them. What makes the show so authentic was the division of labor between Israeli and Palestinian film-makers who were determined to get the story right. The Israelis wrote the script for the Jewish characters. They were either cops or part of the West Bank settlement that bred the racism that allowed 3 men to beat a defenseless teen with a wrench until barely conscious. They finished him off by pouring gasoline down his throat and then setting fire to him.

It was left to director/screenwriter Tawfik Abu-Wael to bring the Palestinians to life. To his great credit, he has made the parents of the martyred son Mohammed Abu Khdeir two of the more fully realized Palestinian characters in any film I have seen. As the father Hussein Abu Khdeir, Johnny Arbid portrays a man being torn by two opposing forces, even to the point of splitting him in half psychologically. On one side is the Palestinian community that is mainly interested in his son being exploited as a martyr to benefit the movement. On the other is the Israeli police that needs his cooperation to help them make the arrest and prosecution of 3 settlers acceptable to most Israelis. His presence at the trial is key, even if it means defying the Palestinian political leadership. They denounce the trial in advance as being a farce that would allow the 3 to go free. His wife Suha Abu Khdeir (Ruba Blal) can accept his decision to cooperate with the police but is still distrustful enough to consider not showing up for the trial. Their drama, including the horrors of discovering what happened to their son, helps to draw you into the story.

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July 19, 2019

Vice; The Loudest Voice

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,television — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 19, 2019

Two of the more infamous Republican Party operatives have become the subjects of biopics within the past year. In “Vice”, a 2018 film now available on Amazon streaming, Adam McKay portrayed Dick Cheney as a cynical opportunist who was both responsible for the “war on terror” and the extension of executive power that enabled the Bush White House to suspend habeas corpus. Currently running on Showtime, “The Loudest Voice” examines the life of Roger Ailes as a modern-day equivalent of Citizen Kane if Orson Welles had portrayed his fictionalized version of William Randolph Hearst as a monster straight out of his mother’s womb.

The two subjects have quite a bit in common. To start with, they were both products of an America that Norman Rockwell once painted but no longer exists. Growing up in Casper, Wyoming, Cheney enjoyed life in “The Oil City” that was ranked eighth overall in Forbes magazine’s list of “the best small cities to raise a family.” Ailes hailed from Warren, Ohio, a mid-sized city like Casper, that like the rest of the pre-Rust Belt region relied on manufacturing to provide the solid middle-class existence portrayed in Rockwell paintings. His father was a foreman in Packard Electronics, a subsidiary of General Motors. Just like Michael Moore, whose father worked for GM in Flint, Ailes idealized the Warren of his youth, seeing it as a place where motherhood, apple pie and the flag reigned supreme. Like Steve Bannon, Ailes’s right-populism revolved around the notion of making a new world of Warrens possible by keeping out immigrants and toughening up trade policies long before Donald Trump became President.

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February 22, 2019

Netflix series on the Sinaloa drug cartels

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,drugs,Mexico,television — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 22, 2019

Not only was Ernest Mandel the leading Marxist economist of his time, he was also a big fan of crime stories. In his 1984 Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story, he made an essential point about organized crime from a Marxist perspective as well as showing a remarkable grasp of popular culture:

Organized crime, rather than being peripheral to bourgeois society, springs increasingly from the same socio-economic motive forces that govern capital accumulation general: private property, competition and generalized commodity production (generalized money economy). The Swedish pop group Abba summed up the situation eloquently in their song: ‘Money, money, money — It’s a rich man’s world.’ (Their own fate is a vivid illustration of this law: with the huge income generated by their records they promptly created an investment trust and contributed on a large scale to the election funds of the bourgeois party coalition.) But a rich man’s world is also a rich gangster’s world particularly since the top gangsters have grown richer and richer in relative terms, and are certainly qualitatively richer than even richest police, or the overwhelming mass of politicians. (Nixon himself was conscious of the disparity.)

A couple of months ago my wife reminded me that season four of Narcos and season three of El Chapo were up and running on Netflix. Although I hadn’t written anything about the El Chapo series, it seemed like a good opportunity to cover both since they dealt with the drug cartels in Mexico that were very timely given El Chapo’s trial. In addition, they are about the best entertainment available on Netflix. The two series are closely related since they deal with the Sinaloa cartel that El Chapo ruled over. In season four of Narcos, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is only a bit player. Primary attention is on Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the founder of the cartel for which El Chapo served as a sicario (hitman). Another important character is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), the DEA agent who was tortured and killed by Gallardo’s henchmen in 1985. His death became a cause célèbre that led to the first in a series of escalations of the drug war.

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October 26, 2018

The Octopus

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,television — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 26, 2018

Recently I had the opportunity to watch season one and two of “The Octopus” (La Piovra, another term for the mafia, just like Cosa Nostra), an Italian TV series that ran from 1984 to 2001. All ten seasons of this outstanding drama about one cop’s determination to take on and destroy the Sicilian mafia can be seen on MHz Choice, a VOD website devoted to European film and television and mostly focused on what the French call policiers and well worth the $7.99 monthly subscription fee. If after having seen my CounterPunch article about Swedish, Marxist-oriented detective series on Netflix, and moreover have appreciated such fare, you’ll be motivated to subscribe to MHz Choice since it has a sizable offering of Scandinavian crime fiction. For my money, literally speaking, this is the only genre on Netflix that is worth my while in recent years and if your tastes are similar to mine, MHz Choice is well worth the price of a subscription.

Having seen at least a half-dozen Italian films about the Sicilian mafia over the years, both narrative and documentary, the main takeaway is that the Italians would never dream of making the sort of films that established the reputations of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Scorsese tends to portray his characters as morally deficient but even with the worst of them, like Joe Pesci’s Tommy De Vito in “Goodfellas”, you are likely to find them demonstrating a raffish charm. As for “The Godfather”, it depicts the Corleone family as the good guys sustaining the “honor” of a virtual benevolent society against the bad gangsters, no matter that no such family ever existed. The “Sopranos” on HBO was obviously made in the same spirit and helped to convey the impression that with their malapropisms, Tony’s gang was just a modern version of Shakespeare’s clowns but with a violent streak.

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May 17, 2018

The Markles versus the British tabloids

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Because my wife and I are devoted fans of “Suits”, the cable TV show that Meghan Markle stars on, we have a heightened interest in the furor over her father’s photos being staged and sold to the tabloids. Since I had been thinking about writing about “Suits”, I will start off with a review of it and another pop culture cable TV show called “Impostors” that we are also addicted to with a similar theme. As I told Jeff St. Clair recently when he asked me about stuff to watch, “If you want some compelling trash, I recommend ‘Suits’. Me and my wife have been binging on it.”

“Suits” premiered in 2011 and is still going strong but without Meghan Markle for obvious reasons in the next season. You can watch the entire series on USA streaming. Despite being a non-premium cable network, its flagship series beats anything I have seen on HBO or Showtime in years.

Its title is a reference to the corporate law firm that Markle works at as a paralegal. In the very first episode, its star attorney named Harvey Spector is interviewing law school graduates from the most prestigious schools but mostly on a pro forma basis. He has no interest in hiring anybody as an assistant because he prefers working alone and does not suffer fools lightly.

The interviews are being held in a swank hotel on the very day that a bike messenger and college dropout named Mike Ross has come to deliver marijuana to a buyer on behalf of his dealer roommate who was unavailable that day. Decked out in a business suit to blend in, Ross is alarmed to see a couple of cops standing in front of the door of the buyer. As he walks past the room trying to avoid being detected, he notices that the cops begin following him down the hall. Taking it on the lam, he runs down the stairwell and keeps one step ahead of them, finally stopping on the floor where Spector is doing his interviews. Assuming that he is a lawyer like the rest, his secretary tells him to take a seat until it his turn.

We already know that Ross will be able to handle himself since he has a sideline job that supplements his bike messenger gig. With a photographic memory and a very high IQ, he taught himself law in order to take LSATs for law school applicants for a fee. So, when he sits down with Spector to be grilled, he not only answers every question but quicker than all the Harvard, Yale and Princeton graduates. Spector offers him a job on the spot and Mike begins a career as a lawyer that brings him into contact with Meghan Markle who is his love interest and eventually his wife.

The show is the best I have ever seen featuring lawyers. Even though it is fairly conventional stuff thematically with Mike trying to balance his social justice ideals with the dirtiness of corporate law, it is great writing and acting. In addition to the plots that pit his law firm against big swinging dick rivals, there is always the tension about him being found out and going to prison for fraud.

As in real life, Meghan Markle’s character is mixed race (a Black father rather than a white one like Thomas Markle.) She is a fine actress and easy to like, whatever she is about in real life. In any case, it pisses me off that she has run into the buzz saw that it is brought out when “outsiders”, especially mixed-race and American, interact with the British aristocracy and the filthy tabloid press over there.

Like “Suits”, “Impostors” is about the same kind of character as the name implies. Available from Bravo streaming, another non-premium channel, it is now in its second season and great escapist fare.

In season one, two men and a lesbian discover that a con artist named Maddie Johnson has married each one of them in turn and stolen every penny they own. One man is a Jew named Ezra Bloom who worked for his garment manufacturing father, the other is a star college quarterback named Richard who was head of a luxury car dealership and the woman is Julia Langhorne, an artist and heiress. The plots revolve around them tracking her down and eventually becoming con artists themselves in order to fund their globe-trotting woman-hunt.

In season two, the revenge-seeking trio are hot on her trail as the FBI is hot on theirs. It is all great fun and will take your mind off Donald Trump, the Middle East, climate change, etc.

Turning now to Thomas Markle, this guy was living in Mexico as a recluse. As a rather obese figure with zero social ties, the paparazzi were taking rather unflattering shots of him. Meghan’s sister Samantha then advised their dad to line up a photo agency that could show him in a more comely fashion, a request he was happy to fulfil. These photos ended up being sold to British tabloids but it is not clear that he benefited financially.

I am not into royal weddings but I am even less into the trashy British tabloids that have descended on the Markles like vultures. This hostility began two years ago when the Daily Sun took an image that appeared on “Suits” of Mike Ross and Meghan’s character in bed and framed it as if it had appeared on a porn site. Another tabloid, The Daily Mail, ran a story titled: “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed — so will he be dropping by for tea?”

As for Thomas Markle trying to personally gain from the photos, it should be pointed out that he declared bankruptcy in 2016, $30,000 in debt. If he made 100,000 pounds from the photos, as it is alleged, who gives a shit? That’s what the British royal parasites spend in a month.

Kudos to CNN for letting these bastards have it:

But why is he portrayed as a money-grabbing opportunist compared to, for example, the family of the Duchess of Cambridge? The Middletons have benefited from their connection to the monarchy. Pippa Middleton, a year after her starring role as bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding, wrote a book on how to celebrate.

Her parents have been accused of using their connections to drum up trade for their party supplies company, selling wedding-related gifts and accessories.

Sarah, the Duchess of York, has been somewhat more brazen in capitalizing on her royal connection in the more than two decades since divorcing Prince Andrew — including writing children’s books, numerous television appearances and, at one stage, a controversial diet plan. And in 2010, a tabloid newspaper made a secret video recording of her, in which she appeared to sell access to her former husband, the Duke of York.

But the tone of the criticism aimed at Mr. Markle — at least in Britain — has had a particularly vicious undertone.

Why?

The key difference between the Middletons and the Duchess of York on the one hand, and Mr. Markle on the other — apart from the latter’s relative lack of media savviness — is that the bride-to-be’s father is American.

What seems acceptable behavior from upper-middle-class Brits whose astuteness in playing up to their royal connections hides their vulgarity, is somehow deemed out of bounds for a shy, reclusive American with financial problems.

It is not that Mr. Markle is working class, but the public shaming of him over the paparazzi story reeks of classism and British snobbery. And because of that public shaming, a father might not get to walk his daughter down the aisle.

 

February 15, 2018

The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Filed under: Gay,television — louisproyect @ 8:37 pm

My wife and I are huge fans of Ryan Murphy, the gay writer/director/producer who just signed a 5-year deal with Netflix for $300 million that begins after his contract with Rupert Murdoch’s FX expires in July. Murphy is probably best known for “Glee”, an ABC network show about a high school glee club that is a backdrop for various dramas involving gender, race, class and other fragmented identities in American society. My impression is that it had a lot in common with “The White Shadow”, a CBS network show that ran in the late 70s using a racially mixed high school basketball team to offer the same sorts of social commentary.

We originally got hooked on Ryan Murphy after discovering “Nip/Tuck”, a cable TV show that ran on FX from 2003-2010. We only decided to pay for cable TV after we lost our barebones network TV connection as a result of the 9/11 attack taking out the TV transmitter that fed our high-rise.

“Nip/Tuck” used a plastic surgery clinic in the same way that “Glee” used its youthful singers–as a way of commenting on American society, in this instance the foibles of rich people who were never satisfied with their appearance. As I pointed out in my review of Mehrdad Oskouei’s “Nose, Iranian Style”, this is a sad practice that has been adopted in the Islamic Republic.

I made the case for “Nip/Tuck” in a 2006 article:

With enough postmodernist tropes to keep a MLA convention going for an extra week, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” uses plastic surgery as a metaphor for various gender, racial and broader cultural issues. Although not as acclaimed as some of HBO’s marquee attractions such as “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City,” “Nip/Tuck” is certainly as well written, acted and directed. Now in its fourth season on the FX cable network, which is not a premium outlet like HBO or Showtime, it is a true pop culture achievement. Past seasons can be viewed on DVD as well.

A year after “Nip/Tuck” came to an end, a new Ryan Murphy show began. Like “Nip/Tuck”, “American Horror Story” was laden with Grand Guignol visual effects but this time using a butcher’s knife instead of a scalpel. It borrows elements from the genre involving vampires, zombies, killer clowns, serial murderers, etc. and wraps them in Murphy’s unique comic sensibility, as well as exploiting them for social commentary.

If you haven’t seen “American Horror Story”, I urge you to watch “Cult”, an 11-episode series from last year that can be seen on Amazon and iTunes. The first episode depicted a clash between candidates Trump and Clinton supporters in a small, upwardly mobile town. Two of the main characters are married lesbians who have had a falling out over one deciding to back Jill Stein instead of Clinton. The main Trump supporter is a Richard Spencer wannabe named Kai whose top lieutenant was abducted by the two lesbians and tied to a chair in order to prevent him for voting for Trump. To make his escape, he cuts off an arm. He is played by Chaz Bono, the transgender son of Cher and Sonny Bono originally named Chastity.

The show is not that interested in presenting an MSNBC type commentary (thank god) but much more in examining American cults of one sort or another. Kai is trying to build a fascist cult that will start by taking over the small town the characters live in and using it to catapult him into the presidency with the help of his stormtroopers.

The series incorporates reenactments of infamous cults, including those led by Jim Jones and Charles Manson, who are played by the same actor who plays Kai. Blood flows by the bucketful as the characters become increasingly crazed. It is vastly entertaining.

Once again, a psycho criminal is the main character in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” that is now showing on Season 2 of FX’s American Crime Story. As you may know, this is based on the July 15, 1997 murder of the trendy designer on the front steps of the mansion he owned in South Beach, Florida. The killer was Andrew Cunanan, a deranged gay man who had traveled across the USA, serially killing people one by one to facilitate the mission he was on. To this day, there has never been a satisfactory explanation why he targeted Versace, nor any of the other mostly gay men along the way.

Since my wife and I have always been curious about the Versace murder, having stayed a month in South Beach not far from his mansion in 2009 and sharing a general interest in fashion (she is an adjunct at Fashion Institute in addition to her main gig as a tenured economics/business professor). What we had trouble understanding is how FX and Murphy could have turned this into a 9-episode series since the story could have easily been told in an hour or so, as it was in a documentary we saw some years ago and that can be seen here:

Watching episode 5 titled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last night, it became crystal-clear why Murphy decided to create a show based on the killing of Versace. He saw it as much more than the tale of a serial killer. It was to be an ambitious epic tale about the state of Gay America in 1997 when equality was still beyond the grasp of gay men and lesbians. In an amazing coincidence, it turns out that the first of Cunanan’s victims was a former Navy officer named Jeff Trail who was an important figure in the struggle for gay liberation.

All this is detailed in Maureen Orth’s “Vulgar Favors” that Murphy’s docudrama is based on. In 1992, Trail was a naval officer on the USS Gridley, a cruiser docked in San Diego, where Cunanan lived. Just by chance, the two met in a gay bar where the  Cunanan approached the still closeted sailor. The two became fast friends, mostly because Cunanan—very much out of the closet—helped him to navigate the gay world that Trail had begun to explore.

If Jeff Trail could not reveal his sexuality on the USS Gridley, he could make the case for gays in the military on a CBS “48 Hours” in 1993. His face was not visible in the interview and his voice was disguised. You can see the interview here: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/02/versace-jeff-trail-american-crime-story-interview

Even though Versace was in an industry that had as many out of the closet men as in ballet, he still kept his sexuality a secret. In this episode, you see him arguing with his sister about being seen too often in gay hangouts. It might alienate men who would otherwise wear his clothing, especially from the macho sports world and among those actors who cultivated a macho identity. The two men’s wrestling with homophobia is interwoven skillfully by Murphy.

In 1995, Versace did an interview in the Advocate, the U.S.’s most widely read gay magazine that can be read here: https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2018/2/15/seen-american-crime-story-read-interview-where-gianni-versace-came-out Unlike Jeff Trail, Versace never denied who he was sexually but neither did he advertise it. Over the past 22 years, the struggle has been to make it as easy as possible to be upfront about your sexuality in the fashion industry, the navy and in public restrooms even if that turns off the Christian Right and the homophobic morons in the Socialist Equality Party.

 

 

December 19, 2017

The Post; The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,television — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 19, 2017

Among the stack of DVD’s received from studio publicists last month was Stephen Spielberg’s “The Post” that is both an homage to a newspaper that has propagandized for every imperialist war as well as a surprisingly candid examination of how it became possible partly through the internecine social ties between the paper’s owner and the warmongering political establishment.

The film is based on the decision of the Washington Post to defy the government’s ban on publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 in the aftermath of the same action taken against the New York Times. To understand how paradoxical “The Post” is, it contains both a sympathetic portrayal of A.M. Rosenthal as well as ones sympathetic to his opposite numbers Daniel Ellsberg and Ben Bagdikian.

Although Ellsberg certainly doesn’t need any introduction to CounterPunch readers, Ben Bagdikian is one of the 20th century’s great media heroes. Not only was he instrumental in pushing the Post into defying the government, he was a tireless critic of the media establishment that tolerated Washington Post owner Katherine Graham socializing with Robert McNamara at the same time he was escalating the monstrous war against the Vietnamese. In 1983, he wrote a book titled “Media Monopoly” that was certainly an influence on Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Played to perfection by Bob Odenkirk, Ben Bagdikian is the film’s moral and political center even though he plays second fiddle to Tom Hanks who is cast as Ben Bradlee.

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November 22, 2017

Charles Manson and the 1960s

Filed under: cults,television — louisproyect @ 8:54 pm

Just by coincidence, the 83-year old Charles Manson died in Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield just 12 days after American Horror Story aired a chillingly accurate recreation of the infamous Helter Skelter murders in 1969 that landed him and all but one of his henchmen in prison for the rest of their lives. Steve Grogan was the only member of his cult to ever be paroled. Even as the judge in his trial stated that he “was too stupid and too hopped on drugs to decide anything on his own”, he spent 14 years in prison. Another cult member, one “Squeaky” Fromme was not involved in the Helter Skelter killings but gained infamy for aiming a gun at President Gerald Ford in 1979. At her trial, where she refused to cooperate in her defense, she reacted to the life sentence by saying, “”I stood up and waved a gun for a reason. I was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water, and respect for creatures and creation.”

Clearly, these people were borderline psychotic or even fully fledged.

This, the seventh season of American Horror Story, is titled Cult and is deeply engaged with American politics today even if it avoids making social commentary. The primary purpose of the series that concluded last week is to use the right/left divide in the USA today as satirical fodder after the fashion of Mike Judge or Trey Parker but with a Grand Guignol sensibility.

The primary character is a Richard Spencer type named Kai who shows up in a small town just before the 2016 election to build support for Donald Trump. Before long he finds himself in a clash with a married lesbian couple who are divided over who to support. One is committed to Hilary Clinton and the other to Jill Stein.

Before long, Kai has built up a cult of locals, including the Jill Stein supporter who has abandoned her Green Party politics as easily as a snake sheds its skin. The cult is on a secret mission to plunge the town, the state, and eventually the entire nation into fascism through a series of false flag incidents. One he dubs “The Night of a Thousand Tates” in homage to Charles Manson. He will send out his cult members to knife a thousand pregnant women, just as Roman Polanski’s wife, the very pregnant actress Sharon Tate, was killed in 1969. Manson intended his murder to spark a race war by having his acolytes scrawling the word “pigs” on Polanski’s house, a word associated with Black militancy. In Cult, it is not made crystal clear why killing pregnant women will spark a war between the Christian right and Hilary Clinton voters but by episode 10, Kai is a raving lunatic.

To prepare his followers for “The Night of a Thousand Tates”, Kai recounts the Helter Skelter murders that are reenacted quite graphically in episode 10 with the actor playing Kai also playing Manson (in the previous episode, he became Jim Jones). The purpose of the politics in Cult is simply to provide a peg upon which gruesome scenes can unfold with deadpan humor and it succeeds nicely. If you want to get your minds off the real horrors taking place in Puerto Rico or Syria, this FX series is just the thing.

I have vivid memories of the Charles Manson incident since some on the left endorsed his attack. In 1981, Lucinda Franks wrote a 6600-word article for the NY Times that made an amalgam between SDS, the antiwar movement, and Manson:

”All white babies are pigs,” one Weatherman shouted during the council, in which some 400 people crowded into a large hall hung with signs reading ”Piece (that is, guns) now.” Bernardine Dohrn, who later took control of the organization when it went underground, made a speech accusing the left of being scared ”honkies” for not burning down Chicago when Hampton was killed, and urging her audience to take up arms and be ”a fighting force alongside the blacks.” The Weathermen were to become as savage as Charles Manson, who massacred Sharon Tate and her friends in her Beverly Hills home. Dohrn said: ”Dig it, first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!”

While everybody understood that the Weathermen had lost their minds by this point, there were others who were nearly as bad, even though they were considered to be reasonable. The New Times, a magazine that was the Salon.com of its day, had a cover photo of a handcuffed Manson with the heading, “The Media Assassination of Charlie Manson: Last Interview from Jail”.

You have to keep in mind that Manson had adopted the guise of a hippie guru after being released from prison in 1967. He headed straight for Berkeley where a fellow ex-con had helped him find an apartment. He supported himself at first by begging on the street, which was very common in those days, and then went on to leech off of various wealthy people, including Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Manson and his 12 female cult members moved into Wilson’s mansion where the two were served by them as if sultans in a harem. Manson, who had dreams of becoming a musician and songwriter, impressed Wilson so much so that he actually recorded a song Manson had written titled “Never Learn to Love” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRGI5Exr3ZQ).

By 1969, the bloom had faded from the hippie rose. First, there was Manson’s cult and then there was the free Altamont rock concert in 1970 when Hells Angels hired as security guards for a rock concert knifed a black man to death during a Rolling Stones performance. Billed as Woodstock West, it was ample proof that the “groovy” vibe of the earlier concert had died. The Angels had become respectable after Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, had invited them to one of his acid-dropping sessions.

In keeping with the nihilistic anthem “Sympathy for the Devil” that the Stones began to perform, a confrontation began that resulted in the murder of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year old African-American man who was totally stoned and bent on mounting the stage. After he was punched out by a Hells Angel, he drew a 22 caliber pistol from within his jacket and headed toward the stage again. At that point, the Angel drew a knife and stabbed him to death. For young “peace and love” hippie types, this incident symbolized the end of an era and meshed perfectly with the sense of futility over the continuing war in Vietnam. The Maysles brothers made a documentary about the concert titled “Gimme Shelter” that can be viewed here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEw_FuglGVU

I watched all this going on from a distance feeling rather superior to the hippie implosion. I was around people who had never taken drugs and who went about their mission of overthrowing the capitalist system with a single-mindedness that was the polar opposite of the hippie dream of achieving peace and love by “dropping out”.

I had no idea at the time that I too belonged to a cult but one that was far less malevolent than Manson’s or Kai’s. What they all had in common was a subordination of the individual to the Divine Master that prevented independent thinking. By the end of the seventies, I had become a disillusioned ex-cult member but not one who had given up on the stated purpose of the cult, namely to create a society based on human need rather than private profit. I had come to the conclusion after a very painful experience that socialist revolutions are carried out collectively but Marxist thought is a deeply individual endeavor. Unless you think for yourself, you cannot make a contribution to Marxism. The conditions that created the deep alienation and criminality of Helter Skelter and the Altamont concert are spawned by a system that has long outlived its usefulness. It is no accident that the fascist-like movements that are making headway around the world, including the USA, put a premium on following a leader blindly. This is essentially the message of American Horror Story: Cult that lies beneath its Grand Guignol surface.

 

September 13, 2017

The Deuce

Filed under: racism,television — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

I have just spent probably the longest 90 minutes of my life watching the first episode of “The Deuce”, an HBO series that examines prostitution and pornography in New York City in 1971. The show is co-written by George Pelecanos and David Simon, the creative team behind “The Wire”, another highly acclaimed HBO series that I could never stand for more than 5 minutes. Both shows are highly exploitative. In the name of gritty realism, they pander to the tastes of an educated urban middle-class that gets its kicks out of gaping at society’s lower-depths, especially African-American petty criminals who are stereotyped in this fare. In “The Wire”, it was drug dealers; in “The Deuce”, it is pimps and prostitutes. Despite the lofty pretensions of the men and women behind this series, it is nothing but Blaxploitation tailored to the carriage trade. All this would be forgivable if there was something dramatic going on. Sitting through the first episode was analogous to watching paint dry, to use a hoary cliché. How something as lurid as pimps and whores going about their business could turn out to be so humdrum and predictable indicates to me that Simon and Pelecanos’s reputation has been overblown to the nth degree.

“The Deuce” includes Richard Price and James Franco as executive producers, who likely had an influence on the story’s narrative arc. Price, a one-time very good novelist, began a steep decline once he began writing policiers like “Clockers”, a 1992 novel based on the cat-and-mouse games played by cops and African-American drug dealers. Expecting something approaching Dostoyevsky based on the rave reviews, I couldn’t get past page 50 or so. This novel evidently qualified Price to begin writing for its first cousin “The Wire” ten years later. Price also adapted the very fine British Criminal Justice TV series about a young man falsely accused of murdering a woman he met on a one-night stand into the mess called “The Night Of”. Like “The Wire” and “The Deuce”, it was mostly a way for Price to highlight repulsive and grotesque African-American characters.

In addition to executive producing “The Deuce”, James Franco plays twin brothers Vinnie and Frank Martino. Vinnie is a bartender from Brooklyn while his brother is a Vietnam vet with a gambling addiction. Evidently the two of them become pioneers of the porn industry but I don’t have plans to stick around to watch the characters “making it”. I find pornography in and of itself to be a crushing bore so I don’t expect a film about its rise to break the mold.

Like Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal is both an executive producer and an actor. She plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a street-walker in Times Square, where most of the action takes place. Unlike the other whores, she works on her own.

Setting the tone for the sort of pimps that are featured in “The Deuce”, we meet C.C. and Reggie Love hanging out in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They are dressed in the garish costumes featured in Blaxploitation films of this period, conked hair and all. The predictably named Reggie Love, who has returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, is singing the praises of Richard Nixon whose ability to intimidate the Vietnamese makes him a fellow pimp in spirit. From there the conversation turns to how they want to line up some white bitches for their stable. Listening to the dialog between the two characters is a revolting experience akin to that produced by the scene in “Dumbo” where crows are stand-ins for Black people.

When C.C. spots a young woman who has just deboarded a bus from Minnesota, he strides toward her with a cane in his right hand. No, he is not disabled from a tour of duty in Vietnam, only using it as a fashion accessory. It is obvious that subtlety is not a word found in Simon and Pelenacos’s vocabulary.

Leaving aside the message of this dubious product, there are stylistic choices that strike me as boneheaded. In the ninety minute pilot for “The Deuce”, there are 46 separate scenes, most lasting no more than a minute. They all involved different characters, sometimes overlapping in the by-now overused “coincidence” fashion of films like “Crash” or “Amores perros”. You know the sort of film I am talking about, right? It is one in which 25 different characters cross each other’s path beating the kind of odds you would find in the NY State Lottery. The hub for all of these coincidences is the House of Korea, a restaurant in Times Square where Vinnie works as a bartender that is favored by pimps, prostitutes, cops and businessmen far more interested in getting drunk than eating some of the best cuisine on earth.

Additionally, to appear faithful to the period, nearly every character smokes cigarettes during the dialog. It becomes a huge distraction since it is so italicized. As I said, Simon and Pelenacos are not into subtlety.

Since the device of having such brief scenes is meant to draw you into the texture of Times Square society in 1971 rather than to develop the characters psychologically, you begin to tire of the fragmentation. Price used the same approach in “The Night Of”, which he clearly borrowed from “The Wire”. I much prefer something like “The French Connection” or “The Godfather”. If that makes me a moldy fig, so be it.

I think Ishmael Reed had the last word on this crap in an interview he gave to Wajahat Ali on Counterpunch:

ALI: Let’s talk about the media. Here are some popular examples of media content and personalities that have gone mainstream and are successful: Oprah. Will Smith. Jamie Foxx. Tyra Bank. Tyler Perry. The Wire. Barbershop. American Gangster. You’re known as a vociferous critic of mainstream media and its tendency to stereotype. So, why complain now? You guys– African Americans – have made it.

REED: The Wire– you know, David Simon [the creator of The Wire] and I have a running controversy for years. It all stems from a telephone call I made to KPFA [Pacifica radio] when he was a guest there in the 90’s on Chris Welche’s show. He was going around the country with a Black kid from the Ghetto to promote something called The Corner– it was all about Blacks as degenerates selling drugs, etc.

ALI: Was that HBO?

REED: Yes. HBO does all this kind of stuff. I called in and told Simon, “You’re using this kid.” Later I said it [was] like Buffalo Bill going around the country exhibiting Indians. He got really pissed off and went to the New York Times, where he has a supporter there named Virginia Hefferman, another Times feminist who, when it comes to Black urban Fiction, can’t tell the difference between the real and the fake; she’s his supporter. She said that George Pelecanos, David Simon, and Richard Price are the “Lords of Urban Fiction,” when the Black Holloway authors like Iceberg Slim can write circles around these guys when it comes to Urban fiction.

Simon, Price and Pelecanos’ Black characters speak like the cartoon crows in those old racist cartoons [“Heckle and Jeckle.”] Henry Louis Gates knows this about “The Wire,” yet his right wing blog, The Root, carries an ad for “The Wire” today and a glowing article about this piece of crap. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is an intellectual entrepreneur all right. He condemns my work as misogynist yet supports Simon’s Neo-Nazi portrait of Black people. “The Wire” and novels by Price and Pelecanos should be submitted to the Jim Crow museum at Ferris State University– this is the website: www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/, where they can have a honored place alongside of some of Robert Crumb’s Nazi cartoons.

When I was researching my novel Reckless Eyeballing, I attended a lecture sponsored by the San Francisco Holocaust Museum, March 26,1984. The program said that the stereotypes about Jewish men in the Nazi media was similar to that about Black men in the United States. I thought, what on earth are they talking about? And then I went out and examined some of this junk, especially the cartoons in the newspaper Der Sturmer – see Julius Streicher Nazi Editor of the Notorious Anti-Semite Newspaper Der Sturmer by Randall l. Bytwerk. I was shocked. Jewish men were depicted as sexual predators, raping Aryan women. They were exhibited as flashers. Both Bellow and Phillip Roth’s books include Black flashers. Jewish men especially those immigrants from Russia were depicted as criminals. Jewish children were seen as disruptive, a threat to German school children and so on.

If any one looks at this stuff for example, you’ll find a perfect match for the way that David Mamet, David Simon, George Pelecanos, Stephen Spielberg and Richard Price portray Blacks. They are very critical in their projects about the way Black men treat women, yet none of them has produced a project critical of the way that men of their background treat women.

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