Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

July 18, 2017

Fox News: fair and balanced

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

January 20, 2017

Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?

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

Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?

Season one of “Sense8” has been completed and season two has just started. The show’s title is a play on the word “sensate” that means being perceived through the senses as should be obvious from its spelling. However, the word takes on a heightened meaning as the eight leading characters are endowed with special powers that allow them to share each other’s field of vision from thousands of miles away and even be transported from long distances to share thoughts with their cohorts and assume their identity at critical points. Most frequently this involves a skilled martial arts fighter inhabiting the body of an unskilled member of the group in order to ward off an attack by gangsters, assassins or other miscreants. Think of Woody Allen becoming Jackie Chan temporarily and you’ll get both the action and comic possibilities of this conceit.

The eight leading characters are:

1/ A female DJ from Iceland who works in London, hangs out with drug dealers, and eventually becomes the love interest of the character below.

2/ A NY cop who is haunted by the image of a woman committing suicide (she turns out to be a tormented fellow sensate.)

3/ A safecracker from Berlin named Wolfgang who becomes part of the octet’s muscle-on-demand just like the cop.

4/ A Korean businesswoman who is also a highly skilled martial artist and rounds out the Sense8 special forces.

5/ A woman from India working in the pharmaceutical industry who on the eve of her arranged marriage becomes drawn to the safecracker through sheer sexual magnetism.

6/ A Mexican movie star famous for his macho roles who is a closeted gay.

7/ A transgender woman named Nomi who is a blogger and hacker in a lesbian relationship with an African-American. She is played by Jamie Clayton, a trans woman who has acted in such roles since 2010.

8/ A Kenyan minibus driver whose vehicle is nicknamed “Van Damme”, after the action hero he idolizes. He is constantly being rescued in confrontations with Nairobi gangsters by the Korean woman who kicks ass like it is going out of business.

On the most basic level, the message of the series is human solidarity as the eight grow closer and closer based on their commonly shared gifts as well as the need to offer emotional support to each other. If the Kenyan is incapable of delivering a karate chop he is certainly able to console the Korean woman who has been sent to prison unjustly for embezzlement. He is just as likely to show up in her prison cell as an avatar as she is in a seat next to him on his minibus.

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December 9, 2016

Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Latin America,television — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness

Notwithstanding my advice to CounterPunch readers to junk Netflix, it is still worth the membership fee for many of the European television shows they reprise such as Wallander and for their own productions such as Narcos that I have been watching for the past several weeks. As you may know, this series now in Season Two is about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín cartel that shipped billions of dollars worth of cocaine into the USA in the 1980s, and who is played brilliantly by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura.

Narcos has very few deep insights about the social and economic context for the rise of the drug industry so why would a Marxist film critic recommend it? The answer is that it is vastly entertaining and has enough background about the Colombian political context of the 1980s to motivate reading about the “war on drugs”. Like the “war on terror” and the Cold War that preceded it, it was one in a series of conflicts that were designed to mobilize Americans against a dreaded enemy after the fashion of the permanent warfare in Orwell’s 1984. When a population grows restive over declining economic prospects, what better way to suppress resistance than to redirect anger against an external threat? Indeed, you will find striking affinities between the hunt for Pablo Escobar and the one for Osama bin-Laden.

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September 3, 2016

The Night Of; Criminal Justice: a comparison

Filed under: crime,television — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Premiering with rave reviews on July 17, the 8 part HBO series titled “The Night Of” seemed too good to ignore even though I have been disappointed with other overhyped HBO series in the past, including “The Wire” that like “The Night Of” relied on the scripts of Richard Price. Price is a 66-year old novelist and screenwriter whose early work I greatly admired. His “Ladies Man”, for example, depicted the desperate nighttime sexual odysseys of a young male New Yorker in vivid realistic detail. Later on, Price began to write gritty detective novels that some critics compared to Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I tried one of them in 1992, a 661-page tome titled “Clockers” that I put down after 50 pages. None of it seemed credible. It was this kind of writing that apparently made Price a perfect match to David Simon, the director of “The Wire”, a show that I spent 15 minutes watching before turning it off in disbelief. In “Faking the Hood”, an aptly titled interview with Ishmael Reed by Wajahat Ali, there’s this terse but accurate summation of the would-be realistic style of “The Wire”:

Simon, Price and Pelecanos’ Black characters speak like the cartoon crows in those old racist cartoons [“Heckle and Jeckle.”]

Richard Price’s co-writer was another veteran screenwriter named Steven Zaillian who wrote a very fine film “The Falcon and the Snowman” based on a true story of young Californians who became Soviet spies as well as the boneheaded “Exodus: Gods and Kings”. Zaillian co-directed the series with James Marsh, the director of the outstanding documentary “Project Nim” about the troubled experiments with a chimpanzee’s ability to learn sign language.

While the NY Times is not necessarily an arbiter of great or even near-great art (keep in mind all the raves for Woody Allen movies in the 1990s), I thought that if even this was only half-true, it was worth checking out “The Night Of”:

“The Night Of,” the tense and exquisite limited series on HBO, beginning on Sunday, is also a deeply detailed procedural, but with a difference. It has more in common philosophically with the podcast “Serial” (whose first subject, Adnan Syed, was just granted a new trial); Netflix’s “Making a Murderer”; and this year’s two O. J. Simpson series — true-crime stories that suggest that who is locked up, for what, is largely a matter of resources and random fate.

Since I wasn’t familiar with “Serial” or “Making of a Murderer”, I had no idea of how to interpret such comparisons. But if it was “tense and exquisite” and came free with my HBO subscription, why not give it a shot?

Episode one, which you can watch for free introduced us to Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student living in Queens who borrows his father’s cab to go to a party in lower Manhattan without his permission. On his way there, people keep getting into the cab because the “available” light is on, something that Naz seems unable to turn off. He tells all the would-be passengers to leave except the last one, an attractive young woman who gets his testosterone churning. Just after she gets into the back seat, she starts swigging beer straight from the bottle. Something tells Naz that this is an opportunity that has fallen into his lap.

When she asks him to take him to the “the beach”, he convinces her that the waterfront on the Hudson River was just as good. There they chat for a while until she invites him to drive her over to her place on the Upper West Side for what is obviously know familiarly as a “good time”. Before getting there, they stop at a convenience store where Naz picks up a six-pack. Once up in her apartment, they drink the beer, hard liquor and take lots of drugs. They also play a knife game that consists of sticking the point in rapid succession between the splayed out fingers of your partner just like the android Bishop (Lance Hendriksen) did in “Alien”. When Naz accidentally nicks the back of her hand, the blood seems to get her own hormones flowing. Lickety-split they end up in bed fucking their brains out.

It was at this point that I turned it off. My comment on a rave review on the usually astute Slant Magazine summed up my feelings:

I turned this ridiculous show off after 5 minutes. [It was actually more like 15] It has about as much to do with NYC characters as the man in the moon. Take me to the beach? Give me a break. Richard Price was once capable of writing gritty naturalistic tales. Now he writes a cock-and-bull story that has mesmerized the critics. The emperor has no clothes.

About a week later, I decided to have another look at the show mostly as a function of nothing else to watch on the tube but also morbid curiosity to see what else could go wrong.

In episode one, a few hours after having sex, Naz wakes up in the kitchen having no idea how he got there. Too much drugs and booze apparently. He goes up to say goodbye to the woman but discovers to his dismay that she has been stabbed to death. In a panic, he takes the bloody knife with him, tries to erase all signs of his presence there, and leaves in his father’s cab in a total panic. A few blocks from the building he accidentally crashes the cab and is arrested for drunk driving. In the precinct house they discover the bloody knife and arrest him for murder.

Much of the rest of the series takes place in Rikers Island where Naz is kept awaiting trial. Almost immediately he becomes caught between rival power centers in the jail, trying all the while to avoid taking sides. The prisoners are all African-American and the dialog written for them is a odd and unlikely mixture of street argot and literary pretentiousness. Since neither Price nor Zaillian have the slightest clue about how hardened Black criminals speak, the whole effect is utterly unnatural but calculated to impress the critical establishment.

In episode four, titled “The Art of War”, a Black prisoner feeling protective of Naz tries to clue him in on the Hobbesian world of Rikers Island as the two survey the scene in the exercise yard as men pump iron:

You want to know who’s who in the zoo? Who to watch out for? You got to check out the card games to see who’s got the temper and who’s got the cool. Only you don’t want to get in those card games owin’ someone some money. That shit don’t end, my nigga. That brother over there, charmin’ everybody. Next thing you know he got your ass by the throat. But he don’t need to use his muscle any more than a spider has to sweet talk a fly.

Got your ass by the throat? Sweet talk a fly? Say what?

Look, here’s the deal. Price and Zaillian probably live in 10,000 foot houses that are monitored by CCTVs and far removed from how the Black criminal class lives or speaks. You are always better off writing about what you know even if in their case it means meeting with their agents and HBO suits. Larry David pulled it off with “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Maybe Price and Zaillian can write a murder mystery about writers who kill a studio executive who has pressured them into inflating a tale like “The Night Of”.

When he was in the precinct house, Naz runs into a lawyer named John Stone who offered his services even though his typical client was a prostitute or petty drug dealer. Stone’s advertisements can be seen inside subway cars, an obvious token of his shabbiness. If you understand how these stories operate, Stone will turn out to be Naz’s salvation through dogged detective work. He is played by John Turturro, a veteran character actor that was directed for some strange reason to sound exactly like the elderly Al Pacino. Also, for some strange reason his character’s foot eczema becomes a major element of the story with Stone searching high and wide for cures, including the use of Chinese herbal medicine.

Another superfluous plot element is Stone’s odd relationship to a cat that he finds wandering about the building where the murder took place. He takes it home with him and keeps it in a spare bedroom with the door closed. With an allergy to cats compounding his eczema not to speak of premature ejaculation he is trying to treat with Viagra, you begin to care more about his ability to make it through the night rather than Naz’s fate. If I had been on the writing team, I would have suggested making Stone into someone suffering Tourette’s as well just to add to the suspense. Will he curse out the judge during the trial in a Tourette’s tic and ruin Naz’s chances of acquittal? The suspense would kill HBO viewers.

Such elements add absolutely nothing to the story and makes you wonder what motivated Price and Zaillian to inflate it far beyond the British TV series that “The Night Of” is based on. I can only say that it might be the result of the same calculations someone on Facebook attributed to the producers of “Mr. Robot”, another overrated cable show that is still much better than “The Night Of”:

The commercial model of television = some innovation and creativity, but too many episodes for the purposes of advertising revenue maximisation. Lost was the same, really, the need to stretch it out messed with the quality.

Since HBO does not run commercials, this might not apply in the narrow sense but if your goal is to get viewers to watch ads for other HBO shows that begin each episode, maybe it does.

Eventually Stone is joined by another attorney, an Indian-American named Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan) who eventually replaces him although he continues to help her out in investigating who might have been the actual killer. When Naz asks her advice on a guilty plea for a lesser manslaughter charge that carried only a five-year sentence, she tells him that if he is guilty, he should take it otherwise he should plead not guilty. So he pleads not guilty.

If you are expecting the typical Scott Turow or John Grisham tale in which an innocent man is rescued through the intelligent and courageous work of a dedicated lawyer, you will be disappointed. It is not so much the problem with Kapoor and Stone but Naz who becomes a typical con in Rikers Island as he is awaiting trial largely through the intervention of Freddy Knight (Michael K. Williams), an alpha male African-American prisoner and skilled boxer. Knight becomes both his protector and his seducer into evil, getting Naz not only to smuggle drugs into jail but becoming his accomplice in the murder of another prisoner. Naz shaves his head in skinhead fashion, tattoos “sin” on his fingers, bulks up by lifting weights, begins smoking crack and bullying prisoners below him on the food chain. Apparently Zaillian and Price don’t believe in doing things half-way. If you are going to turn Naz into a reprobate, just step on the accelerator even if verisimilitude lies wrecked on the side of the road.

The entire purpose of seeing this unlikely transformation of Naz is to communicate the message that jail is a Bad Place. Okay, I get it. If I hadn’t seen “The Night Of”, I would have continued to believe that Rikers Island was much more like Bard College.

Another message “The Night Of” was supposed to convey is that prejudice exists against Muslims. The tabloids make a big deal about him being of Pakistani descent even though he was born and raised in Queens. At one point, someone drives past his parents’ house and throws a rock through the window. None of this is explored in any depth but is thrown into the mix just as effectively as Stone’s eczema and his adopted cat.

The net effect of Naz’s transformation as well as the revelation that he was violent toward his schoolmates who taunted him after 9/11 is to numb you to the drama and shrug your shoulders in advance over the outcome of the trial. Guilty? Not guilty? Who cares.

Meanwhile, as Stone snoops around trying to find out who really killed Naz’s one-night stand, he turns up four other possible suspects while the chief detective on the case has turned up another one on his own. You start to wonder if “The Night Of” will have a conclusion like “Murder on the Orient Express”. They all did it.

The final episode concludes with a hung jury and Naz’s freedom that has a hollow ring. He is alienated from his parents and totally disheartened. In the final moments, we see him smoking crack on the Hudson River waterfront evoking the tryst that began his descent into a living hell. It was all intended to be noirish but I found it third-rate compared to the classic work of Fritz Lang or Jules Dassin.

Determined to find out what went wrong, I ordered the British series on a DVD from Amazon.com that reminded me of a cardinal law of adaptations. When a continental European TV show gets adapted by British TV, it is an inferior product as the Kenneth Branagh version of “Wallander” would indicate. And when the USA adapts a British show, the same thing applies. Adaptations tend to be based on naked commercial ambitions and there is nobody more adept at naked commercialism than American TV and film executives.

In 2008 the BBC aired season one of “Criminal Justice” with a story about Ben Coulter who ends up in the same predicament as Naz. He borrows his father’s cab, picks up a wild woman, goes home with her, and flees from her house after discovering that she has been stabbed to death.

Clocking in at 284 minutes compared to the elephantine 540 minutes of “The Night Of”, it is a reminder that brevity is the soul of wit.

The main difference between the two shows is that Ben Coulter goes through no Jekyll-Hyde transformation like Naz. He comes into jail like a doe-eyed innocent and remains so through the entire series. The Brits had no “messages” to deliver, only a taut crime drama about saving the life of a young man who was being crushed by seemingly irrefutable evidence.

The John Stone in the British show also has eczema but it hardly figures in the plot. We see him walking around in sandals but we care less about that than his ability to uncover evidence that will clear his client. This is par for the course in a million different courtroom dramas from Perry Mason to Boston Legal, but rest assured that the British do these things much better than us. Their auto and steel industry might have gone down the tubes but they still are better when it comes to intelligent entertainment.

And all-importantly, there’s a key difference between “The Night Of” and “Criminal Justice” in the way that the chief detective is portrayed. In the HBO show, after the cop discovers that it was a common criminal rather than Naz who did the crime, he persuades the DA to accept a hung jury and avoid a mistrial. He then goes after the real culprit to demonstrate that the cops are on the job. In the British series, the chief detective keeps a similar discovery to himself since the killer was a snitch working for the cops to supply information on gangsters. When chewed out by the prosecuting attorney for dereliction of duty, he defends himself by saying that he was only doing his job to maintain law and order. In the final analysis, the cop was an accomplice to murder. That’s something neither HBO nor Zaillian/Price could allow to be represented to American audiences apparently.

 

July 30, 2016

Stranger Things

Filed under: popular culture,television — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

About a month ago when Netflix announced a price hike, I came this close to dropping it especially since it has become much more of a streaming service for crappy TV shows and B-Movies. I’m glad now that I decided to stick it out since the Netflix-produced series “Stranger Things” is the best damned entertainment I have run into in a long time. Season one consists of 8 episodes that can now be seen in their entirety. If you have Netflix, put it on your must-see list if you like me are fond of pop culture icons such as the X-Files, Stephen King’s “It” and “Carrie”, Spielberg’s “ET” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Poltergeist”, “Let the Right One In” and “Silent Hill”.

“Stranger Things” borrows liberally from all of these in a delirious mash-up that is both a tribute to the originals and an entirely new contribution to the supernatural/horror/fantasy/deep state paranoia they all incorporate to one degree or another. If Hollywood is committed to sequels and knock-offs from the standpoint of the accountant’s ledger, the Duffer brothers who produced the series come at it more from the standpoint of passionate fans.

The premise of “Stranger Things”, which is set in the 1980s, is that MK Ultra experiments with LSD on an unsuspecting guinea pig woman has led to the birth of a daughter called Eleven by her handlers who has telekinetic powers that a top-secret government agency wants to harness for military purposes against the Soviet Union.

In the course of experimenting with the girl, who has been seized from her mother, the agency inadvertently opens up a backdoor into a parallel dimension in Hawkins, Indiana, the village next to agency laboratories. The parallel dimension is a dark, dank, fetid, monster-ridden sinkhole that bears a resemblance to the normal world but only in the way that Mr. Hyde resembles Dr. Jekyll.

In the first episode we meet four boys, who are about Eleven’s age, playing Dungeons and Dragons in the finished basement of a house that will be familiar to you out of the Stephen Spielberg oeuvre or those films that emulate Spielberg like Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” (the screenplay was actually written by Spielberg.) As Spielberg has mentioned in interviews, this was the kind of neighborhood where he grew up in Arizona and that he likes to evoke in many of his films. Their mundaneness is the perfect backdrop for the otherworldly happenings in his films.

In the first episode we also meet Eleven who has fled from the laboratories whose experiments on her have been physically and psychically damaging. She is also weary of the isolation that is imposed on her as a top-secret asset. Kept in virtual imprisonment, she lacks family and friendship.

As one of the four friends rides his bike home after the Dungeons and Dragons game has ended, he is pursued by a monster who has crossed over into his world from the parallel dimension and then hurled into that netherworld himself. Like the little girl in “Poltergeist”, he becomes the object of a desperate search by his three friends and his mother who has been nearly driven mad by his disappearance. When she discovers that he is in a parallel universe occupying the same space as her house, she begins to break down walls in an effort to penetrate into the dark space that has imprisoned him. In her bizarre efforts to weaponize her home, break down the walls between the two dimensions and rescue him, those closest to her begin to view her as having lost her mind in the same way that Richard Dreyfuss was deemed insane by his wife, children and neighbors for building a replica of the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

Also in the first episode Eleven crosses paths with the boys and is given shelter in the home of Mike Wheeler, one of the three, who keeps her a secret just like ET was kept secret. When Mike and his pals are being bullied at their school, Eleven steps in and teaches the bullies a lesson just like the vampire sweetheart of a young boy does in “Let the Right One In”. In fact, “Stranger Things” would be a great final exam for a film school class. Identify the borrowed material and get an A.

 

October 16, 2015

Hannibal

Filed under: Counterpunch,psychology,television — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

Hannibal: Television in the Spirit of Buñuel

As a rule of thumb, network television is the bottom feeder in popular culture while the novel, a medium we associate with classics such as “Don Quixote” and “Moby Dick”, dwells in the heavens. In a striking reversal, NBC television has aired a series called “Hannibal” that while based on the novels of Thomas Harris is far more complex and inspired than the source. As each episode begins, we see the words “Based on the characters of the book ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris”. Having just read “Red Dragon” to help me prepare this review, I would say the relationship between the source and its offspring is close to the one that exists between a banal tune like “Tea for Two” and how Thelonious Monk interpreted it.

The television show also borrows from the novel “Hannibal”, which like “Red Dragon”, was written after “Silence of the Lambs” in an obvious bid to cash in on the massive book sales that followed Jonathan Demme’s blockbuster film. The TV series omitted any reference to “Silence of the Lambs” and to Clarice Starling, a wise move since this overly familiar material would have undercut the goal of seeing the characters with fresh eyes. Once you’ve seen Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins square off, there’s no turning back.

For some Thomas Harris is a novelist to be reckoned with. David Foster Wallace includes “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” as two of his top-rated ten novels. That being said, he is a fan of pulp fiction and includes Stephen King’s “The Stand” as well. (A confession: I consider King to be the finest novelist writing today.) In my view, “Red Dragon” is an engaging police procedural that includes lots of chatter about carpet fibers, fingerprints, blood samples, autopsies and the like. If you enjoy CSI, you’ll probably go for this novel in a big way. Given Harris’s background as crime reporter for a Waco, Texas newspaper, he is obviously familiar with the terrain.

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August 14, 2015

Cenk Batu; Salamander

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:50 pm

Probing the Deep State — On TV

Back in 2012 James Wolcott told Vanity Fair readers “the action has left the Cineplex and headed for broadcast and cable.” In making the case for television, Wolcott offered up “Downtown Abbey” and “Mad Men” as fare that trounces Cineplex flicks geared to the 14-year-old comic book fan. With all due respect to Wolcott, my preference would have been for the European TV series that I have covered for CounterPunch in the past starting with Swedish Marxist detective stories such as Wallander and more recently Danish shows such as Dicte, which by no means Marxist were certainly superior to anything coming out of Hollywood, including the typical Oscar honoree.

Now moving southerly into Europe, I am once more struck by the artistic superiority of a couple of TV series that thankfully are freely available on the Internet. Hailing from Germany, “Cenk Batu, Undercover Agent” is a police procedural that can be seen on Youtubewhile “Salamander”—a tale of the Belgian Deep State that should appeal to Stieg Larsson fans—is available on DailyMotion, a video sharing website that was launched by a couple of Parisians in 2005.

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July 24, 2015

Dicte; Borgen

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 10.32.12 AM

The Female Power of Danish Noir

CounterPunchers, particularly those who watched those Marxist Swedish television detective series I recommended last year, will likely appreciate “Dicte” and “Borgen”, two shows that appeared originally on Danish television. Both feature superb writing and performances even if the artistic teams behind them are not exactly Marxist. As Joe E. Brown said in the final seconds of “Some Like it Hot”, nobody’s perfect.

Whatever they lack politically, they more than make for in storytelling, character development, dialog, and plot—the ABC’s of writing going back to Aristotle. And most of all, they are distinguished by powerful female characters that put American television with its “Astronaut Wives Club” et al to shame.

“Dicte”, which can be seen on Netflix streaming, is the eponymous character–a female crime reporter in her late 30s who has taken a job with a newspaper in Aarhus, which is Denmark’s second largest city and where she grew up. In broad outlines, it has the same sort of plot found in the Swedish series “Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter” that was included in the survey referred to above. “Dicte” ends up as an amateur detective in almost every episode, one step ahead of the cops. In researching her articles, she inevitably finds herself being targeted by some bad guy who has decided that she knows too much and must be terminated.

Every time the town’s homicide detective runs into her at a crime scene, he warns her about interfering with an on-going investigation but in the end Dicte proves to be a better sleuth than the cops and finally vindicated.

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