Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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


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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May 21, 2015

I said goodbye to Letterman long before he said goodbye to his viewers

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

When “Late Night with David Letterman” came on the air at 12:30am in 1982, I became such a fan that I was willing to put up with the early morning grogginess that came with staying up so late. The show came on after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”, something that I had little use for at the time since it was so predictable. I ha no idea at the time that Letterman’s deepest desire was to become the next Johnny Carson and host the same kind of show.

In 1982 I was three years out of the SWP, working for a consulting company called Automated Concepts that was run by an EST devotee named Fred Harris, and working with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network. I watched almost no television at all except for the Letterman show and football games. Most of the time I listened to WBAI, which was probably at one of its high points artistically and politically. Although it is hard to believe, the Letterman show was just as edgy in its own terms as a few clips from the early period should illustrate. They reflect a distinctly “downtown” vibe that was in its way the TV counterpart of the thriving punk rock, performance art, and underground Super-8 movie scene.

Brother Theodore (his last name was Gottlieb) was not just a comic genius; he was a genius period who led an extraordinary life as this Wiki entry should indicate. Can you imagine someone like that being featured on Jimmy Kimmel (not that I have ever watched that show.)

Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.

He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. He played a bit part in Orson Welles’s 1946 movie The Stranger.

Chris Elliot was the son of Bob Elliot of the radio show “Bob and Ray” fame who certainly inherited his dad’s sense of absurdist comedy. He was a regular on the Letterman show for a number of years and always pushed the envelope. To give you an idea of the affinity that Letterman had with WBAI, long-time early morning show host Larry Josephson curated the Bob and Ray shows for an acclaimed CD reissue.

No commentary is necessary

Sandra Bernhard was a lesbian standup comedian who was by the far the best at making Letterman squirm even though he knew that this was essential for the show’s success.

What can I say? Harvey was my favorite guest on the Letterman show if for no other reason that he expressed exactly what I would have said if I had been on the show myself. Years later when I hooked up with Harvey to do a comic book about my life, I was more excited to be working with him than to be a guest on the Letterman show.

When Letterman moved to the 11:30 slot in 1992, I was happy to be able to watch my favorite show and still get a good night’s sleep. But within a year or so, I realized that it was a different show. It did not happen all at once but it no longer became a place for Brother Theodore but more for some idiot actor or actress to talk about their next film. On top of that, the shtick that remained like the “Top Ten List” grew stale.

What had happened?

I got the answer in Bill Carter’s 1994 book “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night”. Carter explained in convincing detail that Letterman harbored a desire from an early age to be the next Johnny Carson instead of David Letterman. The 11:30 slot allowed him to drop the edgy guests who would have either bored or annoyed the people who expected the standard late night fare.

In August 2001 I posted some comments about Letterman to Marxmail that never made it to my Columbia University website (this was long before I began blogging or when blogs existed for that matter). This is the appropriate time to post them again.

Early in February, top CBS television president Les Moonves and six other top entertainment executives spent several days in Cuba with the approval of the U.S. government. The visit was capped by lunch with Fidel Castro. When news of the trip became public, Late Night host David Letterman began making fun of his boss relentlessly. Among the many rightwing jokes revolved around the “differences” between Moonves and Castro: “On one hand, you have a ruthless dictator surrounded by ‘yes’ men. And on the other, you have Castro.”

Another Late Night show pushed the envelope even further with a sketch titled “Lunch With Fidel.” And one of the entries on a recent Top 10 List was, “Last week, at Castro’s Grammy party, he let me beat a political prisoner.”

This follows a controversy surrounding the guest appearance of radical folk singer Ani DiFranco. Producers canceled her scheduled appearance tonight after the folk singer refused to substitute a more “upbeat” song for one about racism. DiFranco’s manager, Scot Fisher, told The Washington Post that the singer planned to perform “Subdivision” in the show’s final segment. The song begins, “White people are so scared of black people, they bulldoze out to the country.”

One can understand why Letterman would object to such a performance. Mostly what his shtick is about nowadays is projecting an out-of-towner’s fear and loathing of non-white New Yorkers to his dwindling audience. To preserve market share, Letterman makes sure to include at least one racist jibe each night about smelly foreign cab drivers or other aspects of its polyglot culture. The aging Letterman, who lives in Connecticut, is reverting more and more to his nativist Indiana roots. The state was home to the most powerful Ku Klux Klan chapter in the north throughout the 1920s. As the camera pans out to his sycophantic audience each night, you are hard-pressed to find anybody who is neither white, nor overweight for that matter. In his shift to the bland (and now racist) tastes of heartland America, he has attracted the audience he deserves: Corn-fed out-of-towners wearing fanny-packs, knuckle-head frat boys and visiting servicemen.

Letterman is a truly sad story. In the 1980s he was the inventive host of an NBC show that came on after Johnny Carson. Since this time-slot was traditionally (and still is) geared to a more adventurous programming, his bad boy creativity could find full expression. When he wasn’t interviewing quirky writers such as Hunter Thompson, he was skewering the pretensions of show business phonies like Cher. The rest of the show consisted of “found humor” like throwing watermelons off a 12 story building or “stupid pet tricks”.

When he made a bid for Carson’s time-slot after his retirement, NBC executives opted for Jay Leno instead whose conventional humor would satisfy the least common denominator and sell more beer and laxatives in the process. The jilted Letterman took a job with CBS in the same time-slot as Leno and vied for the same audience.

This meant changing his format. Instead of a Hunter Thompson, you would end up with some vapid B-movie actor promoting his or her next film. The conversation would inevitably revolve around how married life was treating them or what they did on their vacation. In other words, the same idle chatter that his audience has over dinner in their split-level homes in East Jesus, Nebraska. Nothing like making overweight white people feel at home. Meanwhile the “found humor” became ever more formulaic, following the same tendency found on Saturday Night Live. If an audience laughs at a sight gag, this becomes an invitation to repeat it every week until it becomes as irritating as a garden rake being dragged across a blackboard.

I suppose that Letterman’s turn to the right was inevitable. If you pander to middle-class fears and loathing about the NYC Casbah, you will naturally find yourself catering to the hysterical tics that define US foreign policy. Poor Letterman, he aspired to be the next Johnny Carson. Instead he has become the next Bob Hope.

February 19, 2015

What the zombies tell us

Filed under: Film,television — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

Below you will see an excerpt from the February 8, 2015 episode of “Walking Dead” on the AMC cable channel. Titled “What Happened and What’s Going On”, it is about the latest futile attempt by the characters to find a safe haven against zombies, in this instance a middle-class gated community that was formerly the home of Noah, an African-American youth who joined the band recently.

Noah is accompanied by Tyreese, the older and powerfully built African-American who we see in the excerpt being attacked by Noah’s brother, who has been transformed into a zombie.

I want to direct your attention to the radios that are shown in Noah’s house as Tyreese lies bleeding on the floor and later on when he is being rushed away in a car driven by Rick, the band’s leader. In both instances Tyreese is hallucinating since radio and television, and all civilized life, has come to an end.

The radios play what sounds like BBC reporters commenting on Boko Haram or ISIS: “Four deadly attacks on the coastal district”. “The marauders continue their campaign of random violence”. “The country’s military forces in disarray”. And so on.

For me, the hallucinatory radio broadcasts came as an epiphany. I have made no effort to track down commentary on this episode but I interpret it as a sidelong glance at the barbaric nature of so-called Islamic radicals, even though they have very little to do with religion. More generally, the writer Scott Gimple is conveying the show’s major theme—that human beings are worse than the dreaded zombies and that civilization is entering a new Dark Age.

Over the past couple of years, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four they try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and Noah’s gated community. Their miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.

In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.

The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.

Zombie tales have only assumed social and political dimensions fairly recently. Before George Romero’s breakthrough “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, the typical zombie flick was something like Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked with a Zombie” that was set in the Caribbean and involved voodoo ceremonies that brought people back to life. Tourneur also directed “Cat People”, a film much admired by film scholars for its surrealist inflections.

Romero was not interested in making the typical voodoo film. His zombies were on the attack in rural Pennsylvania and their human prey took refuge in a farmhouse whose defense was organized by Ben, an African-American played by Duane Jones. Unlike “Walking Dead”, the zombies were routed by local law enforcement that regarded them not much more than a nuisance like bedbugs or rabid skunks, which is summed up by this priceless exchange in the denouement:

Field Reporter: Chief, if I were surrounded by eight or ten of these things, would I stand a chance with them?

Sheriff McClelland: Well, there’s no problem. If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.

Rob Kuhn’s documentary “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Netflix or Amazon, interviews George Romero and leaves no doubt about his determination to use zombies as a symbol of 1960s chaos and disintegration. In my review of the film, I noted:

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as the sheriff in “Walking Dead” but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre.

As the seventies, eighties and nineties wore on, the zombie genre took on a bleaker character. If they were a minor inconvenience in Romero’s 1968 film, by 2002 they were a powerful force that had made civilized life impossible—anticipating in their way the message of “Walking Dead”. I speak here of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”, a brilliant film that for the first time depicts human beings as much of a menace as the zombies they supposedly protect mankind from. In the thrilling conclusion to the film, a young British civilian fends off a military unit that is planning to rape his girlfriend.

Three years later George Romero made a new zombie film that is even more of a social commentary than his 1968 original. Titled “Land of the Dead”, it puts a zombie army that is advancing on a gated city that is as brutally class divided as Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai. In my review of this film that can be seen on Amazon streaming, I quoted Romero who was asked about why the film was set in a Pittsburgh of the dystopian future:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

Leaving aside the social and political implications of “Walking Dead”, I can recommend it as first-rate entertainment. Like other shows on AMC such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, the station has a way of putting together dramatic serials that are the equal or superior to anything on the premium channels such as HBO or Showtime. Frank Darabont, who was the screenwriter for a number of Stephen King adaptations, developed the show. It is not too hard to figure out that King’s darker than dark sensibility and supreme story-telling knack had a major influence on Darabont. There’s not much on Darabont in Wikipedia but this is worth citing:

Darabont was born in a refugee camp in 1959 in Montbéliard, Doubs, France. His parents fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. When he was still an infant, his family moved to the United States, settling in Chicago. When Darabont was five the family moved to Los Angeles. Darabont was inspired to pursue a career in film after seeing the George Lucas film THX 1138 in his youth. Darabont graduated from Hollywood High School in 1977 and did not attend college. His first jobs after finishing school included working as a forklift operator and as a busboy. He claims he got his writing skills from “endless hours” of writing at a desk on a typewriter in his free time.

Too bad so many screenwriters learned their craft in graduate school than in the way that Darabont did.

Finally, while on the topic of zombie movies or TV shows as entertainment, let me recommend two of my favorites: Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s “Dead Snow”, made in 2009 and the sequel “Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead”. Both films can be seen on Netflix streaming and are brilliant pulp fiction.

In the first film, a weekend skiing trip by Norwegian students turns into a desperate flight from Nazi soldiers who emerge as the walking dead from beneath the snow. It is a splatter film filled with cartoon-like effects of power tools being used as weapons, one of which is used to saw off the arm of Martin, who has been bitten and infected by a Nazi zombie. Yes, I know it sounds idiotic but it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. There are multiple beheadings but none that would give you the kind of feeling of dismay that ISIS gives. Your reaction is to laugh out loud in much the way that a safe being dropped on the coyote’s head in a roadrunner cartoon would.

In the sequel, there is even more merriment. I laughed so loud watching it that I was afraid my neighbors would complain to the doormen downstairs. Martin, who is the sole survivor of the first attack, gets the Nazi battalion commander’s arm that he has chopped off fleeing from the mountaintop reattached to his body in the hospital while he is unconscious. Meanwhile, the Nazi ends up with Martin’s arm. It all leads to inspired farce such as Martin not being able to control the reattached arm that seems to have a mind of its own. If you’ve seen Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, you’ll get the picture.

The film gets its subtitle from Martin’s raising a battalion of Red Army soldiers who have been buried in Norway since 1945, after a battle with the Nazis now on the rampage. Using the power of his reanimated right arm, he brings them back to life or more accurately allows them to walk among the living. The final scene is a truly inspired gore-fest with intestines being pulled out of the victim’s stomach like a garden hose and dozens of beheadings. If you prefer “The Imitation Game” or “Birdman”, the hell with you.


September 12, 2014

Sweden and the Renaissance of Marxist Crime Stories

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,popular culture,Sweden,television — louisproyect @ 2:36 pm

From Beck to Wallander

Sweden and the Renaissance of Marxist Crime Stories


For fans of Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo novels and the film adaptations both American and Swedish it inspired, I have good news about similar crime stories that appeared on Swedish television originally and that can be seen on Netflix, Amazon and on other commonly available sources.

For reasons to be explained momentarily, there are good reasons why Marxists like Larsson decided to write what can arguably be called pulp fiction. Foremost in Larsson’s mind was the need to create a nest egg for his long-time partner who unfortunately has run into conflicts with Larsson’s father and brothers over the author’s estate. (Larsson, who died unexpectedly from a heart attack, did not leave a will.) While there are undoubtedly sharp observations about the dark side of Swedish society in his novels, his main goal was to tell compelling stories with memorable characters. If that is the sort of thing you are looking for in popular culture, then the existence of other Swedish works in this genre should be most welcome.

Full article



July 28, 2014

Fallen City

Filed under: China,television — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

This shows tonight on WNET in NYC at 10pm. Check your local PBS station to see if it is being screened in your city. This is from the PBS website:


Even for a country historically plagued by earthquakes, the 2008 quake in the Sichuan province was devastating. Nearly 70,000 people were killed and thousands more were missing and never found, making it the deadliest quake in the country in three decades. The old town of Beichuan, home to 20,000 people, was reduced to rubble. Fallen City is a revealing account of contemporary China’s response to the disaster: Within a scant two years, the government built a new and apparently improved town close to the old Beichuan.

Fallen City is the haunting story of the survivors, whose grief over the past and anxiety about the future cannot be resolved in bricks and mortar or erased by cheerful government propaganda about “the new Beichuan.” In today’s China, even the worst disaster can be an occasion for celebrating the country’s achievements and its anticipated great future. Yet in China, as elsewhere—and as movingly captured by Fallen City—suffering in the face of death and displacement follows a path determined more by humanity’s search for meaning than by the politics of the day.


The film is the first directed by Qi Zhao, whose last credit was executive producing “Last Train Home”, about which I wrote:

“Last Train Home” is the latest movie that departs from the globalization-is-wonderful ideology of Thomas Friedman, Jagdish Bhagwati, and other prophets of neoliberalism. Some are fictional, such as “Blind Shaft”, a movie about miners forced to work in virtual slavery. Others are documentaries like “Still Life” that depict the loss of livelihood and ties to the land that the Three Gorges Dam posed.

Directed by a Canadian Lixin Fan, whose last film “Up the Yangtze” explored the same issues as “Still Life”, “Last Train Home” focuses on a single family whose life has been torn apart by China’s rapid industrialization.

Changhua Zhan and his wife Suqin Chen both work on sewing machines in a typical export-oriented factory in the Guangdong province. Each New Year’s holiday, they take a train back to their rural village to see their teenaged daughter Qin Zhang and her younger brother Yang Zhang. This is not as easy as it seems since there are far more people trying to get a ticket than are available. The train station is a sea of humanity with cops and soldiers trying to keep order. Although the film does not comment on why this is the case (it sticks to a cinéma vérité format), it strikes this reviewer as the likely outcome of a society that no longer places much emphasis on public transportation as it once did. (There are signs that this is beginning to change recently, but one doubts that it will have any impact on the poorer migrant workers for a while.)

full: https://louisproyect.org/2010/11/28/last-train-home/

I expect this to be a very important film.

July 25, 2014

Smoking hot soap operas

Filed under: Counterpunch,popular culture,television — louisproyect @ 12:01 pm

Smoking Hot Soap Operas


For most of my life I have remained immune to the dubious charms of the soap opera, either the daytime or evening varieties.

In the 1970s and 80s when shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” captivated the nation, I much preferred to listen to the radio. TV held very little interest for me except for football games on Sunday or shows like “All in the Family” that spoke to American social realities.

More recently a couple of evening soaps struck a chord in a way that nothing in the past ever did. I say this even as the creative team behind them would most likely disavow the term soap opera. After making their case to CounterPunch readers looking for some mindless entertainment (god knows how bad that it needed in these horrific times), I want to offer some reflections on why this genre retains such a powerful hold.

A couple of weeks ago, while scraping through the bottom of the Netflix barrel, I came across “Grand Hotel”, a Spanish TV show that has been compared to “Downton Abbey” on the basis of being set in the early 20th century and its preoccupation with class differences. Having seen only the very first episode of “Downton Abbey”, I was left with the impression that it was typical Masterpiece Theater fare, where class distinctions mattered less than costume and architecture.


read full article

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