Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 2, 2018

The best films of 2017

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

My sentimental favorite

To repeat what I said in last year’s selection of the best films available as VOD (video on demand), Amazon continues to provide access to those that show up originally in obscure art house venues in the largest cities and nowhere else. The rental fee ranges between $3.99 to $6.99 and is worth every penny.

Despite the decline of such theaters as I pointed out in a recent CounterPunch article, the on-line availability of leading-edge independent, foreign-language, and documentary films is greater than ever. In the 1950s and 60s, arguably the golden age of film, your only opportunity to see something like Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” was to live in a city where it was playing. And even if you did, it might have been impossible for you to fit it into your schedule. That’s the demand for which a revival house like The New Yorker or Bleecker St. Cinema began to meet decades ago.

In 1985, the video shop revolution began with the opening of the first Blockbuster. Now, for the first time, you could go rent a VHS for “Yojimbo”, even though it was more likely that you’d rent it from the video store equivalent of The New Yorker, which in the Big Apple was a place called Kim’s Video and Music that shut down in 2014, a victim of Amazon just like the massive record shops Tower and J&R. Who knows? Maybe in ten years every capitalist commodity can only be ordered from Amazon. At that point, we should arm the workers, seize power, nationalize it once and for all, and exile Jeff Bezos to that space station colony he is obsessed with.

With the steady improvement of bandwidth and the convenience of devices such as the Roku box, it has reached the point where many of these envelope-pushing films can be rented not long after they premiere in an art house. In fact, most of the films I review were seen on Vimeo, a streaming site that is essential for the film industry’s publicity departments.

This year’s selection of ten narrative and ten documentaries was drawn from an especially rich pool. While Hollywood continues to decline, such films trend upwards—a function no doubt of living in a time when the social and economic crisis creates an enormous magnetic pull on filmmakers with a conscience. No matter how bleak things seem, let’s support such films since it is better than cursing the darkness.

The list below contains a link to and excerpt from my reviews.

Continue reading

January 31, 2018

In the Intense Now

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in N.Y,, Brazilian director João Moreira Salles’s documentary “In the Intense Now” is an elegiac look back at the radical movements of 1968 that consists of Salles’s nonstop commentary (Portuguese with English subtitles) over archival footage—a mixture of home movies, newsreels, and obscure agitprop made by Maoist collectives and the like. It is an incredible parade of activism from a period that is now as distant chronologically from 2018 as the Russian Revolution was to those of us marching against the war in Vietnam.

Although Salles was only 6 years old in 1968, he adopts the somewhat mournful tone of a veteran of the May-June events in France who has never recovered from their failure to achieve final victory against capitalism. He hones in on a young woman in the midst of street-fighting who is wearing a radiant smile, looking so much more fulfilled than the isolated and impotent left of today. His approach is very reminiscent of Chris Marker’s “A Grin without a Cat” that covers much of the same territory politically, except that it is much broader in scope, beginning with the Russian Revolution.

In my review of “A Grin without a Cat”, I mentioned the conversation that Marker had with a gloating Major Robert “Pappy” Shelton who considered Che Guevara’s defeat in Bolivia as a function of him relying on the Communist Party. In France, you had a variation on CP treachery as their trade union officials worked overtime to end the general strike and pushed for a return to bourgeois normalcy.

In probably the most telling moment in the film, we see a heated argument between a young female worker and a union local officer at the front door of the Wonder factory about whether they should go back to work. This was part of a film made by radical students from the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC), just one of many that make this film such necessary viewing for my readers. Holding back tears, she says, “No, I won’t go back in. I won’t set foot again in this filthy joint. You should see what a shithole it is! We are black to our necks in there, it is disgusting. If we go back in, we won’t be able to get anything else! We are not even allowed to use the toilet!” The CP union officer reminds her that they will be receiving higher wages, part of the deal with De Gaulle to get the workers to end their strike. The workers tell him that it was not higher wages they sought but an overturn of the oppressive conditions at Wonder.

For Salles, the CP was nearly as frightened by the “anarchy” of the students and workers as De Gaulle whose timing was perfect. Within days of getting them to sign a back to work agreement, his supporters called for an anti-radical protest that brought 500,000 people into the streets. Salles describes them as shopkeepers frightened by the protests, not that different from those who backed General al-Sisi in Egypt. There were also lots of yuppies wearing cashmere sweaters and more than a few who chanted “Cohn-Bendit back to Dachau”.

Back in 1968, everybody on the left had heard about Daniel Cohn-Bendit who was to the French student movement as Mario Savio was to the student revolt in Berkeley a few year earlier. Cohn-Bendit, who is effectively the star of “In the Intense Now”, was the son of German Jews who fled to France to escape Nazism. In June 1968, Cohn-Bendit makes a trip to Germany to speak to the student movement there only to learn that the French were trying to prevent him from returning.

At the time, I was much more tuned in to the French Trotskyist movement that was playing a significant role in the movement even it was not as prominent as Cohn-Bendit. The leading spokesman was Alain Krivine, who was 27 at the time. Another important figure was Daniel Bensaid, a Jew like Krivine, who had grown up in Algeria. Bensaid died in 2010 from the complications of AIDS.

Like Regis Debray, who was arrested in Bolivia during the crackdown on Che Guevara, Daniel Cohn-Bendit became integrated into the French political elite as the years wore on. He became a top leader of the Green Party that had shed its radicalism. Among his close collaborators is the laptop bombardier Bernard Kouchner. He also co-chairs the Spinelli Group, a liberal think-tank that advocates federalization of the EU.

In another riveting scene from “In the Intense Now”, we see the 23-year old Cohn-Bendit and two other student leaders facing off against a group of establishment intellectuals on a TV talk show over the goals of the student and workers movement. One of them tells Cohn-Bendit that you always end up with a disaster when a movement has a blueprint for a utopian society like the Russian revolutionaries had. A strikingly articulate Cohn-Bendit reminds the pompous historian that Marx and Lenin eschewed such blueprints and that the goal of the movement was mostly to evolve toward a better society by removing obstacles in its way such as a university system that kept students in thrall to reactionary administrations. As an interesting side note, the film points out that the May-June events started at the University of Nanterre over repressive regulations against sexual relations, not the war in Vietnam. Of course, as the protests spread, they took on an antiwar character and ultimately an anti-capitalist character.

Salles spends less time looking at the Soviet intervention that brought the Czech Spring to an end but the footage is as compelling as any made in France that year. There is a poignant scene of Marta Kubišová, Czechoslovakia’s most respected protest singer, rushing up to Alexander Dubcek as he is entering the Parliament building in order to honor him with a pendant she wore around her neck customarily. We also see her singing “Prayer for Marta” that became a symbol of national resistance against the occupation of Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. After Stalinist “normalcy” is returned to Czechoslovakia, we see a film of a dispirited Kubišová crooning to barnyard animals.

More questionably, Salles includes a fair amount of home movies made by his mother in 1966 during a tour of China, where she is smitten by the Red Guards. It is difficult to glean from any of this whether she had much in common with the student left, especially as Salles points out that she was overwhelmed by the Chinese complexion that is even more beautiful than that of the English. A Mrs. Magoo?

If you can ignore the China segment, “In the Intense Now” is a rewarding experience for those of my readers who have only a dim awareness of the May-June 1968 events or even for someone like me who was immersed in them at the time.

Also, let me offer a capsule review of “Retribution”, a 2015 Spanish film on Netflix that I saw last night. This is an exciting action film akin to “Speed”, the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock vehicle from 1994 about a bus that will be blown up if goes beneath 50 miles per hour. The only way to defuse the bomb is to turn over $3 million in ransom to a fiendish Dennis Hopper.

In “Retribution”, a wealthy but unscrupulous (is that redundant?) banker who sets off one morning to drop off a teen daughter and an elementary school son. On the way there in his Mercedes-Benz SUV, he gets a call on his smart phone from a man who informs him that he and the children are sitting above explosives that will go off unless he deposits 465,000 Euros into an offshore bank account.

The film has breakneck pacing as the banker has to deal with frightened children, the sheer impossibility of raising the money, dashing from one place to another on the instructions of the bomber, and finally avoiding the police who suspect him of being the bomber himself. As the banker, Luis Tosar is just terrific.

While not giving away too much (a spoiler in this case would ruin the film for you), let me say that the title of the film is most appropriate.

 

January 29, 2018

Taking stock of Robert Parry (1949-2018)

Filed under: journalism,Syria,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Yesterday, Nat Parry announced the death of his father Robert Parry on Consortium News, a website he created in 1995 as an alternative to the mainstream news. While Robert Parry had announced to his readers on December 31, 2017 that a stroke would inhibit his ability to provide the kind of content to which they had become accustomed, the underlying ailment responsible for his untimely death was cancer of the pancreas that he had unknowingly been suffering from for the past 4 to 5 years.

Nat Parry’s article summarizes his father’s considerable accomplishments that date back to Reagan’s war against the Sandinistas. I recommend it as an indication of a career that any journalist could be proud of, as long as the cut-off date is 2011 or so.

He credits his father with digging beneath “the reality of the chemical attack in Syria in 2013” and for defying the mainstream media’s consensus on Putin and the war in Ukraine. We are told that:

Bob regretted that, increasingly, “the American people and the West in general are carefully shielded from hearing the ‘other side of the story.’” Indeed, he said that to even suggest that there might be another side to the story is enough to get someone branded as an apologist for Vladimir Putin or a “Kremlin stooge.”

This reduction of the parameters of the discussion on these matters to Robert Parry on one side and the NY Times and Washington Post on the other is a bit of a Hobson’s choice. As bad as the bourgeois press is with its inside-the-beltway mindset, are we any better off with the inside-the-Kremlin orientation of a whole range of highly respected leftwing reporters since 2011, including Parry, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh and Stephen Kinzer? Neither the mainstream media nor the “anti-imperialist” websites like Consortium News could take the trouble to learn and write about the people Obama dismissed as “farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn’t have a lot of experience fighting”. Obama, his supporters in the bourgeois press, and Robert Parry all failed to engage with the humanity of those who find themselves on the opposite side of the barricades from Putin or Assad.

I have my own ideas of how that should have been done and credit my friend Anand Gopal with doing the kind of reporting that never would have occurred to the much more well-known figures above. Harper’s published Gopal’s article “Welcome to Free Syria” in August 2012 . Unlike Cockburn or Fisk, he was not embedded in the Syrian army. Instead, he was transported from Turkey into Syria in a car that “avoided the highway and hopscotched from village to village along back roads.” With his mobile-phone system disabled, it was impossible to know about government troop movements and the location of army checkpoints.

The pay-off was being able to interview people who Obama never had any intention of putting into power. Just consider how they saw themselves and how similar they were to those rising up in the Arab Spring as well as the Occupy movement in the USA:

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.

“We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor,” Matar told me. He had joined the Taftanaz student committee, the council that plans protests and distributes propaganda, and before April 3 he had helped produce the town’s newspaper, Revolutionary Words. Each week, council members laid out the text and photos on old laptops, sneaked the files into Turkey for printing, and smuggled the finished bundles back into Syria. The newspaper featured everything from frontline reporting to disquisitions on revolutionary morality to histories of the French Revolution. (“This is not an intellectual’s revolution,” Matar said. “This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”)

Except for Anand Gopal’s article and those written by the Syrian left, including Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila al-Shami, and Joseph Daher, this was a perspective utterly missing in Parry et al. Instead, we were expected to choose between the mainstream media that featured articles on Assad’s brutality and Parry’s attempts to minimize or deny it. Syrian voices were omitted.

Parry could have been less interested in the people of a shithole like Binnish. Like most men who had made careers at Newsweek, Time, the NY Times, and the Washington Post, his focus was on “foreign policy”. Syria was just some real estate that the USA and its rivals were quarrelling over. On April 29, 2013, he expressed dismay over Obama’s failure to enter negotiations with Assad:

In 2012, there appeared to be a chance for a breakthrough both in talks with Iran over its nuclear program and with Syria’s Assad regime over a power-sharing arrangement with the country’s disaffected Sunni majority. Some people involved in those initiatives thought that after the U.S. election, a victorious Obama would have the political space to make concessions as well as demands. Then, when nothing happened, some thought he was waiting to install a new national security team and didn’t want to risk Senate obstruction of his nominations.

That disaffected majority was hardly worth Parry’s consideration since it was made up of “murderous Sunni fundamentalists.” How did he know that the Sunnis were so evil? Well, he read it in the N.Y. Times. So, you see, the mainstream media is to be shunned unless it serves your own ideological preconceptions.

Only five months after he wrote his article, he became just another Assadist propagandist claiming that Assad was innocent of the charge of killing over a thousand people in East Ghouta in a sarin gas attack. Shockingly enough, Parry backed up his claims by citing Carla Del Ponte, a UN functionary that Alexander Cockburn charged with running a kangaroo court to prosecute Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes. If that wasn’t the bottom of the barrel, Parry sunk even lower to rely on the allegations found in former Defense Department official F. Michael Maloof’s article for World Net Daily (WND), which alleged that the rebels used sarin gas on their own supporters. I guess you can say that WND.com is an alternative to the Washington Post but what kind?

WND was founded in 1997 by “birther” Joseph Farah as part of the Western Journalism Center that he formed 6 years earlier. Besides WND, the Western Journalism Center created NewsMax, another ultraright outlet. If you are looking for comparisons, they should be grouped with Breitbart News. Besides Maloof’s dubious reporting on sarin gas, WND had run a six-part series claiming that soybean consumption causes homosexuality as well as one that pointed to a secret 20-point Muslim plan “for conquering the United States by 2020.”

As for Maloof, a Mother Jones investigation revealed that he was key to providing a fake story that helped paved the way for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. When Maloof worked for the neoconservative warmonger Richard Perle, he cooked up evidence that the Soviet Union was stealing Western technology. And this is the guy that Robert Parry wanted us to trust?

Turning to Ukraine, it is just as bad—maybe worse. This time it was the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014 over Ukraine. He even tied the two “false flag” incidents to each other:

Despite doubts within the U.S. intelligence community, the Obama administration and the mainstream U.S. news media are charging off toward another rush to judgment blaming Ukrainian rebels and the Russian government for the shoot-down of a Malaysia Airlines plane, much as occurred last summer regarding a still-mysterious sarin gas attack in Syria.

Like Seymour Hersh, Parry refers to unnamed spooks in the “intelligence community”. Who knows? Maybe the aforementioned F. Michael Maloof was one of them.

Demonstrating a laughable departure from the rigorous norms of investigative reporting, Parry wrote:

According to a source briefed on the tentative findings, the soldiers manning the battery appeared to be wearing Ukrainian uniforms and may have been drinking, since what looked like beer bottles were scattered around the site.

No, this is Parry and not Onion.com. I love the bit about beer bottles scattered around the site. You’d think that he would have mentioned vodka in order to make it sound more plausible. Those Ukrainian troops were just like Bluto and Otter getting into trouble in “Animal House”. They must have gotten loaded and shot down a civilian airliner.

Parry also casted doubt on the possibility that the separatists had a ground to air missile capable of reaching the plane. Supposedly, they had MANPAD’s that were only capable of bringing down low-flying airplanes or helicopters. But in fact, just days before the Flight 17 shoot-down, a separatist missile had brought down a Ukrainian military transport, an AN-26 that was flying four miles above the ground and well beyond the reach of a MANPAD.

All of this demonstrates that one of the greatest collateral damages of the past seven years of conflict in Syria and Ukraine, besides the loss of lives, is its tendency to turn accomplished investigative reporters into shoddy propagandists.

After Trump’s election, Parry posed the question whether Trump would decide to be a great president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt or someone more of the caliber of Calvin Coolidge. I am not sure whether Parry’s illness had some effect on his ability to clearly assess Donald Trump but it had already been established by then that Trump was a shameless liar who treated his workers like slaves. In 1980, he used undocumented Polish workers to clear the future site of Trump Tower, forcing them to work 12-hour shifts in unsafe conditions and paying them $4 per hour. To imagine that someone with a record like Trump could have been anything like FDR was as much a failure to do the proper job of an investigative reporter as was his articles on sarin gas and Flight 17. If Parry had read David Cay Johnson, he could have never considered this in the realm of possibility.

It is too bad that Parry did not retire in 2011. A book could be written about the decline of investigative journalism over the past 6 years. Let’s hope that the next generation of reporters can take their cue from Anand Gopal who is continuing in the tradition of the pre-2011 Robert Parry as well as all the other journalists who I held in great esteem until the awful assault on the truth and humanity that began under the combined power of Assad and Putin’s air force and their respective propaganda machines.

January 27, 2018

Blocked by Bhaskar Sunkara on Twitter

Filed under: Jacobin — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

Most celebrities—major and minor—use Twitter as a way of letting their followers know what they are up to. Bhaskar, a major Marxist but only a minor celebrity in American politics, was a past master of letting us know what city he had just landed in, how the NY Knicks could improve, and very occasionally some banal political observation, at least one that can be made in 140 characters. I would also be loath to say he never had much to say in 1,400 words because that would be unkind. Forget I just said that.

I have almost never written a critical reply to one of his Tweets, mostly because it takes me 1,400 words just to get a full head of steam, but he got the old dander up with this:

Now, I have been exposed to Bhaskar-thought for more than a decade and remember vividly his interventions on the Marxism mailing list, especially this:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

Being of a certain age, I have become rather inured to Marxist special pleading for work in the Democratic Party. This was clearly a sign that the 19-year old had figured out that Marxmail was a waste of his time, filled as it was with toothless old folks who had little interest in diving into the cesspool with him. “Come on in, comrades, the water’s fine. Just remember to bathe with lysol and take penicillin later.”

Greener pastures loomed for the enterprising 19-year old. Writing for Dissent Magazine, launching an edgy new Marxist magazine, fawning profiles in the Washington Post, the N.Y. Times, and the New Yorker Magazine. Who can top that? Who wants to hang around a bunch of loser 60s radicals when you can be in the fast lane making appearances on MSNBC? Yes, there were people in their teens and twenties on the Marxism list but they were likely infected with the sectarian notion that socialist revolution and joining the Democratic Party were incompatible.

What galled me about Bhaskar’s tweet was the faux radicalism. The notion that “the most honorable figures on the left offer a class struggle back to social democracy” struck me as posturing of the worst sort especially in light of Jacobin publishing an article by Vivek Chibber that the honorable, even if a bit on the senior side, Dan La Botz described it in the following terms :

We have arrived it seems at classical social democracy. Or if we haven’t, then what does Chibber actually have in mind? What differentiates his position from social democracy? Nothing in this article would suggest that there is any difference.

I would love to read this article myself since I find Chibber’s preening as the arbiter of true Marxism from the barricades of the NYU Sociology Department unspeakably arrogant. However, the snazzy graphics posed too much of a hurdle for my cataract-encrusted eyes so I took a pass.

Instead, I just dashed off this tweet:

This must have gotten under his skin because—god knows—he must be working all sorts of hours under incredible pressure to turn out what he likely thinks is the Iskra of our day and deserves our everlasting gratitude. Being so mistreated by a resentful old coot like me, he displayed a high dudgeon I’ve never seen from him before:

I don’t know quite how to put this but in the hundreds of articles I have written about Libya and Syria, there is not a single word about supporting American bombing. I know that this is confusing for someone like Bhaskar since in his mind criticizing Seymour Hersh or Patrick Cockburn is tantamount to backing American bombing. After all, correcting Hersh on the chemistry of sarin gas is objectively the same as cheering for NATO, as they used to say in sectarian Leninist politics.

Reacting to this in my customary ill-tempered manner risked getting me blocked but I had to get this off my chest even if it meant missing some tweet about Bhaskar’s impressions of Amsterdam restaurants and the like:

 

January 26, 2018

Act and Punishment

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:55 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 26, 2018

On August 22, 2012, my first article on CounterPunch appeared. Defending Pussy Riot against those on the left who supported the arrest of the three punk rockers who had been jailed for singing (or yowling) “Mother of God, chase Putin away” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, my article began:

Given the sharp divide on the left between those who consider the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) governments to be the first line of defense against Western imperialism and those who take the sides of the victims of such governments even when the U.S. State Department takes up their cause as well, it should not come as a surprise that the Pussy Riot trial has become a litmus test. Support for Pussy Riot is a sign that you are catching Christopher Hitchens flu or worse.

That was the first in a series of 243 articles appearing under my name at CounterPunch that comes full circle today with a review of “Act and Punishment”, a 2015 documentary on Pussy Riot that can now be rented on Amazon.

Continue reading

January 25, 2018

How can you not love Mark E. Smith?

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm

Mark E. Smith, 1957-2018

I just counted 16 CD’s of The Fall, more than any other group or single artist in my collection. Led by Mark E. Smith who died just yesterday, The Fall was not a group in the sense that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were. If Smith died 30 years ago, The Fall would have died with him. With his mercurial temperament, Smith hired and fired musicians the way that George Steinbrenner hired and fired managers. Unlike Smith, Steinbrenner’s only gift was being born with a spoon in his mouth. Born to a humble working-class family, Smith never achieved the fame or fortune of a Bob Dylan but for my money he was a much better writer than Dylan and as deserving of the Nobel Prize in literature as W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot.

Unlike Dylan until he went “surreal”, Smith’s lyrics were not endowed with any particular message about saving the world. But unlike Dylan’s highly self-conscious surrealism, Smith’s lyrics were far more evocative since they employed plain language rather then linguistic tricks. For example, “I am Damo Suzuki” begins:

Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness (2)
Stands in Cologne Marktplatz (3)
Drums come in
When the drums come in fast
Drums to shock, into brass evil  (4)
What have you got in that paper bag? (5)
Is it a dose of Vitamin C? (6)
Ain’t got no time for Western lesson (7)
I am Damo Suzuki
The park alight with acid rain
Give it to me, danke, every day (8)
Who is Mr. Herr Stockhausen? (9)
Introduce me
I’m Damo Suzuki
Soundtracks, Soundtracks (10)
Melched together, the lights
The lights above you

It should be emphasized that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the words in a Mark E. Smith performance since he deliberately slurred his words as if he had marbles in his mouth. In his earliest records, the words were crystal clear. Perhaps as a punk musician (he was inspired to start a band after seeing the Sex Pistols), this was the ultimate rejection of commercialism. But this didn’t matter if you saw his slurring in the same way you saw Dylan’s reedy, nasal twang. If you were looking for beautiful singing, you might as well listen to Gordon Lightfoot. What you got in Dylan was drama, after all.

Mark E. Smith was dramatic in his own way. The snarling, slurring, syncopated delivery—akin to Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme—was as much poetry as it was singing. It didn’t matter that much if some of the words got lost in the shuffle. What you gained was exposure to the ultimate outsider musician, as antithetical to the norms of polite society as Charles Bukowski. Like this:

A cottage industry grew up to decipher the lyrics of Mark E. Smith’s songs. The words above to “I am Damo Suzuki” were decoded on the The Annotated Fall website, whose unnamed owner offers these rather democratic recommendations:

This site is dedicated to annotating the lyrics of the Fall (the vast majority of which are written by Mark E. Smith) and corrections and suggestions are always very welcome. A quick word about interpretation: many of the Fall’s lyrics are resistant to a single reading, and none of the interpretations offered here are meant to be the final word or claim to be the only correct way to understand a lyric. I also encourage readers to freely use the comment section below each song to expound on the matter in any direction they choose, as well as to offer suggestions and corrections.

The annotations are a labor of love. As you can see from the footnotes to “Damo Suzuki”, this requires the same kind of research as interpreting T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. For example the Annotated Fall explains in footnote two that Damo Suzuki, a singer with the German experimental rock group Can, became a Jehovah’s Witness. And so on. Frankly, this matters less to me than the sheer incongruity of starting a song with the words “Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness”. When you’ve listened to Fleetwood Mac or Beatles songs for a decade or so, such a lyric is elevating—not that you can really make out the words. You only go to a website dedicated to deciphering Mark E. Smiths if you, like me, are dedicated to Mark E. Smith.

I never paid much attention to Smith’s biographical data but just might track down something that will flesh out the details in this must-read profile that appeared in the Independent in 2011:

The Fall were an unusual group from the start, in that they seemed to arrive fully formed: an aberrant powerhouse that, over the years, would prove to be, in John Peel’s words, “Always different, always the same.”

Peel once told me, talking about Smith, who was probably the DJ’s most consistently cherished protégé, how he found it odd to admire somebody’s work, “when you suspect you’d find some of their attitudes utterly unappealing”.

“It’s true,” says Smith, “that we didn’t meet often.”

“But you were a good left-wing boy when you started out, weren’t you?”

“Yes. SWP. Hard left.” He fell out with his local Labour group after they opposed military intervention in the Falklands.

“I’m much more left now, though. I think Stalin had the right idea. Take one out of five fucking newspaper editors, and MPs, and shoot them. Then they’d buck up.”

Smith bursts out laughing.

“Listen, you know I’m not really like that. Members of my family are social workers. They work hard. And now, after 13 years, they’re being sent for an interview to re-apply for their job, competing with some graduate from Wilmslow. A friend told me he met Cameron, who said he was at Live Aid. We have fucking Glastoheads running the country. People like Geldof, who is a dickhead. They’re not even as intelligent as him.”

How can you not love Mark E. Smith?

January 23, 2018

The Lovers and the Despot

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

Today I want to take a look at another very interesting film distributed by Magnolia but would like to start with a few words about the company’s origins and how to see its really fantastic collection through VOD at budget prices. It was founded in 2001 by Bill Banowsky and Eamonn Bowles with a major share of funding by Mark Cuban, the billionaire who has had a long-time commitment to art house cinema. In 2003, Cuban purchased Landmark Cinema, a string of 58 theaters specializing in foreign and independent films. One of them, the Landmark Sunshine on Houston St., was in the news recently when it fell victim to crushing N.Y. real estate realities.

After seeing and writing about Magnolia films for the past 15 years or so, I can assure you that they are at a consistently high level. Go to their website and browse through their inventory and you will see an amazing variety of first-rate films that can be seen for $2.99 on Youtube or other streaming outlets such as iTunes or Amazon, including the one discussed below that I watched last night.

“The Lovers and the Despot” documents the strange tale of two of South Korea’s film personalities who were kidnapped and spirited away in 1978 by North Korean agents in order to help realize the dreams of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current “despot” and the son of the family dynast Kim Il-sung who was still in power that year. Unlike his father, Kim Jong-il was less interested in reunifying Korea under the aging despot’s odd mixture of Confucianism and Stalinism than he was in producing films that could compete in the Cannes Film Festival and other glitzy gatherings that had hardly anything to do with the north’s austere values.

The first to be seized was actress Choi Eun-hee. Born in 1926, she was as famous in South Korea as Julia Roberts was in the USA. Still alive in 2015, when the documentary was made, she provides some stunning insights into the despot’s strange cinephilia that led to her captivity. During her time in the north, she made secret recordings of Kim Jong-il on a microcassette recorder that reveal him to be a far more complex figure than is generally understood. We hear him complaining bitterly why North Korean films are always so propagandistic. Why couldn’t they make films like the ones he loved, like Friday the 13th, Rambo and the Hong Kong action films that were to have such a huge impact on Quentin Tarantino.

We learn from the documentary that Kim Jong-il was raised in isolation from other children in a palace where he was served by the kind of staff you’d see serving royalty. Feeling lonely most of the time, his major source of consolation was foreign films. Eventually, he built up a library of 15,000 VHS cassettes that were what kept him from falling apart psychologically.

Six months after Choi Eun-hee’s abduction, North Korean agents seized her ex-husband, the director Shin Sang-ok who might be compared to Stephen Spielberg or Martin Scorsese at least in terms of his fame and fortune. When Choi Eun-hee was cast for one of his films, the two fell in love, got married and raised a family. Their children offer commentary on their parents in the film as well. Their parents ended up divorced after Shin had an affair with a younger actress. As you can see, South Korean film directors are not that different than their Hollywood counterparts.

In 1978, Shin Sang-ok got on the wrong side of the South Korean dictatorship—exactly why the film does not go into. Wikipedia states that most of the films he made in the 70s were flops but his biggest problem was pissing off Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who was arguably more despotic than the Kims. After Park closed down Shin studios, the director fell into dire straits.

Supposedly, Shin was abused by the North Koreans. Kept in prison, he tried to escape repeatedly and was tortured—at least according to his ex-wife who had reconciled with him after he turned up in the north. After a few years of being brainwashed and beaten mercilessly, he saw the light and became not only a supporter of the Dear Leader but willing to restart Shin studios in the north. Cranking out films at a pace that would make Woody Allen look like a slouch, the two lovers became major personalities in North Korea and enjoyed the kind of freedom that would be beyond the reach of the average citizen. After 11 years of living high off the hog, the two won political asylum from the US embassy in Vienna. Ironically, Kim Jong-il accused the USA of kidnapping the couple.

South Korea had little use for the two, with many politicians and journalists accusing them of taking part in an elaborate hoax. That the North Korean security forces were involved with kidnapping, however, is not that difficult to establish. Taking place between 1977 and 1983, there might have been hundreds of victims. Even the North admitted to abducting 13 Japanese citizens.

If you want to see an example of Shin’s work in the north, this Godzilla knock-off is on Youtube with English subtitles:

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to see four North Korean films at the Korea Society in N.Y. None of them were made by Shin and all of them were quite good. If they were available on Youtube or elsewhere, they would go a long way in showing a more human side of the people that Donald Trump wants to exterminate.

In 2009, none were available but all—thankfully—can be seen with English subtitles now.

Traces of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CalkPIfkMhQ

The Tale of Chun Hyang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSzQyA88ejY

Wolmi Island: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkKSMJ8vf18

The Flower Girl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey2fvPtBsiA

My favorite of the four is “The Flower Girl”, about which I had this to say in 2009:

Along with a number of other North Korean movies, “The Flower Girl” is analyzed by U.C. Santa Barbara professor Suk-Young Kim in a lecture titled “Kim Jong-il and North Korean Films” that can be seen online. Kim also gave a talk at the Korea Society on the opening night of the mini-festival that is not online, however. I cannot recommend her lecture highly enough since it is both illuminating for its insights into the role of North Korean movies and the video clips she discusses in the course of the lecture. You will see a longish excerpt from “The Flower Girl” as well as one from a remarkable Robin Hood/socialist type movie drawn from Korean legend that includes Hong-Kong type martial arts.

In framing her approach to North Korean movies, Kim explains why Kim Jong-il was so keen to promote the medium:

Now, why was film so important for Kim Jong-il, in addition to all the reasons that I laid out here? We tend to think that Kim Jong-il is a leader who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which is true because he was the biological son of the founding father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. But we have to think that North Korea is the first hereditary socialist country, where power to rule was passed down from father to the biological son. And before this was officialized, we did not know who the next leader of North Korea would be. I mean, it was certain that Kim Il-sung would handpick somebody before he passed away, but it wasn’t sure if it was going to be his son or somebody else in his political retinue.

So in a way, Kim Jong-il had to really work his way through — he had to use whatever talent he had to really pave the road to power. And he was — he is known to be an extremely talented artistic person by all accounts, and he tapped into his artistic talent to really prove his filial piety for his father, Kim Il-sung. And this is an extremely interesting fact if we consider how North Korea is still observing traditional Confucian values of patriarchy, and in this light, the nation itself is seen as an extended family structure. So to respect and preserve the authorial power of the patriarchal national leader was extremely important.

And another factor that plays into this rationale is that Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, lived long enough to have witnessed de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union, and whatever happened to the Maoist legacy after the Culture Revolution. So he was extremely keen on preserving his legacy after death, and in this sense Kim Jong-il effectively used film to really create this mythical aura about his father and perpetuate his legacy by creating these everlasting images.

January 22, 2018

Anti-Semitism and the socialist left

Filed under: anti-Semitism — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

Rejected by fellow Putinites unhappy with his naked anti-Semitism

Recently, just by coincidence, I received queries from two different people about manifestations of anti-Semitism.

One wrote a series of messages, the first appearing under the subject heading “Socialists and anti-Semitism”:

I’ve been reading a bit about (as the title of this email would suggest) the anti-Semitism of a lot of “pioneers” of socialist thought: people like Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux, P.J. Proudhon and apparently a lot of others. A few interesting (but obviously right-wing pieces:

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/the-return-of-left-wing-anti-semitism/article/2571377

https://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/98702/how-four-influential-socialist-anti-semites-shaped-daniel-greenfield

http://www.independent.org/publications/article.asp?id=359

It’s an uncomfortable subject for me, given that I consider my “libertarian socialism” closer to Proudhon (mostly on the necessity of markets and voluntary association) than to Marx. What is your opinion on this? Do you think that hatred of Jews is natural to go alongside opposition of “usury” or “commerce,” given their association with Jews by early socialists?

He followed up with this:

Just found this; a good example of a right-wing attempt to win leftists over to anti-Semitism, on the basis of historical continuity.

http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2016/08/07/on-the-left-and-the-myth-of-the-jewish-proletariat/

And concluded with this:

Sorry to keep at this, but I found a piece here which seems to relate to the other material: it says that Jews became moneylenders, not because they had no other options, but because it was the most lucrative venture.

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/michaellevin/why-did-jews-become-money_b_4046093.html

Two days later another comrade wrote:

Hi Louis,

Once again I came across your writing while doing digging on disinfo. A former US information operation guy I know runs the website To Inform is to Influence did a write up on Charles Bausman at Russia Insider and his recent piece “It’s time to drop the Jew taboo”. I’ve been looking to see what I can find as well. (https://louisproyect.org/2016/04/17/all-you-need-to-know-about-the-russia-insider-scandal-and-more/ )

(The rest of it related to other matters.)

Cheers.

Here is my response to these disparate expressions of anti-Semitism:

The first article, titled “The return of left-wing anti-Semitism” was written by a Tory politician named Dan Hannan who complained about Corbyn supporters being “undisguised Jew-haters”. As it turns out, this is nothing but the Tweets of purported Corbyn supporters, including one that that said “Zyklon B was used for delousing.” Well, who knows who was posting such Tweets? For all I know, it could have been enemies of Corbyn trying to provide fodder for an article like this. Hannan does refer to a cleric named Raed Salah, who was supposedly found guilty of propagating the blood libel. Considering the fact that an Israeli court acquitted him of this charge, it is safe to say that it was trumped-up (I used the term advisedly) in the first place.

Hannan’s article concludes with a reference to the Book of Esther that serves as the theological underpinning of Purim, a holiday that is celebrated by wearing costumes and getting drunk. In Israel, it has become a day in which Arabs are fair game for violence, just like in the film “The Purge”. Actually, this is not that far from the words of the Book of Esther, where the King has decided to line up with the Jews on the urging of his Jewish queen:

The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King Xerxes was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar.

The next article titled “How Four Influential Socialist anti-Semites shaped the left” comes from arch-conservative David Horowitz’s Front Page website. It refers to Karl Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” that was also referred to by Hannan and that serves as a sine qua non for articles such as this. To really understand what Marx was driving at in this work, you have to know the historical context. It was actually a critique of a book by Bruno Bauer titled “The Jewish Question”. An article by Michael Cooke in Links provides the necessary context:

What provoked Marx’s ire was that Bauer was opposed to a petition being circulated at the time asking for rights for the Jewish community similar to those enjoyed by their Christian brethren and sisters in the Prussian state. Marx had already signed the petition and had publicly supported its aims. Bauer, however, criticised the state for defending the privileges of the elite and the use they made of religion in perpetuating this.

My advice is to read Marx’s article that while rather problematic in many ways is hardly an expression of Nazi-style anti-Semitism. Even though it contains the infamous words (What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering.) repeated in the Front Page website, it was fairly standard for the period and reflected widespread animosity toward the Rothschilds, including Moses Hess, an early proponent of Zionism. In a useful article on Marx, Hess and the Economic-Jew stereotype, Hal Draper writes:

Earlier in 1843 Hess had published an important article on The Philosophy of Action, which only incidentally remarked that “The Christian God is an imitation of the Jewish Moloch-Jehovah, to whom the first-born were sacrificed to ‘propitiate’ him, and whom the juste-milieu age of Jewry bought off with money …”

This sort of thing was eclipsed by later Marxist analysis of the Jewish question from Abram Leon and Isaac Deutscher but you wouldn’t expect David Horowitz’s website to cite them. His goal, as was Hannan’s, was to smear socialists.

Next we have Tyler Cowen, the libertarian ideologue, writing an article titled “The Socialist Roots of Modern Anti-Semitism” that repeats the Bauer stuff but within a narrative reminiscent of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” that paints German society in the 19th century as a seed-bed for Nazism, but predominantly from the left. He writes:

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Germany became the first country to develop systematic anti-Semitic political and intellectual movements. In Germany, Adolf Stocker’s Christian Social Party (1878-1885) combined anti-Semitism with left-wing, reformist legislation. The party attacked laissez-faire economics and the Jews as part of the same liberal plague. Stocker’s movement synthesized medieval anti-Semitism, based in religion, and modern anti-Semitism, based in racism and socialist economics. He once wrote: I see in unrestrained capitalism the evil of our epoch and am naturally also an opponent of modern Judaism on account of my socio-political views. Stocker had revered the Prussian aristocracy since his youth.

While Stocker was an anti-Semite, the German Social Democracy was a fierce opponent of Jew-hatred. Do you think that Cowan referred once to Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg or even a Jew like Eduard Bernstein? Don’t be foolish. But keep in mind that the chief ideological influence on German socialism had this to say:

In North America not a single Jew is to be found among the millionaires whose wealth can, in some cases, scarcely be expressed in terms of our paltry marks, gulden or francs and, by comparison with these Americans, the Rothschilds are veritable paupers. And even in England, Rothschild is a man of modest means when set, for example, against the Duke of Westminster. Even in our own Rhineland from which, with the help of the French, we drove the aristocracy 95 years ago and where we have established modern industry, one may look in vain for Jews.

Hence anti-Semitism is merely the reaction of declining medieval social strata against a modern society consisting essentially of capitalists and wage-labourers, so that all it serves are reactionary ends under a purportedly socialist cloak; it is a degenerate form of feudal socialism and we can have nothing to do with that. The very fact of its existence in a region is proof that there is not yet enough capital there. Capital and wage-labour are today indivisible. The stronger capital and hence the wage-earning class becomes, the closer will be the demise of capitalist domination. So what I would wish for us Germans, amongst whom I also count the Viennese, is that the capitalist economy should develop at a truly spanking pace rather than slowly decline into stagnation.

–Frederick Engels, “On Anti-Semitism”, 1890

Next we turn to Andrew Joyce’s “On The Left and the Myth of the ‘Jewish Proletariat’”. Like everybody else referred to above, Joyce is on the right, and, furthermore, the extreme right. The article appeared in the Occidental Observer whose mission statement avers: “The Occidental Observer will present original content touching on the themes of white identity, white interests, and the culture of the West.” Indeed, Joyce has written articles making the case that the Jews fomented a war against Hitler. Should I bother debunking Joyce’s neo-Nazi tripe? It is not worth my reader’s time. The guy is fouler than an overflowing toilet.

Finally, we come to an article that appeared in a publication that at least has liberal credentials. In the Huffington Post, Michael Levin’s “Why Did Jews Become Moneylenders? Because They Could” is a brief review of a book titled “The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History” that makes the case that Jews became bankers because their families very early on raised their male children to study the Torah. This literacy came in handy when it came to looking at the fine print of contracts. No, I am not joking.

For a more convincing analysis, I recommend Abram Leon who focuses on economics rather than Torah study:

So long as Europe lived under a regime of natural economy, the initiative in commercial traffic belonged to merchants from the Orient, principally the Jews. Only some peddlers, some lowly suppliers to the chateaux of the nobles and the clergy, succeed in freeing themselves from the humble mass of serfs bound to the soil. But the development of native production makes possible the rapid formation of a powerful class of native merchants. emerging from the artisans, they gain control over them by taking over the distribution of raw materials. Contrary to trade as conducted by the Jews, which is clearly separate from production, native trade is essentially based on industry.

This covers all of the links supplied by my first correspondent. Now let me turn to the second, who was interested in what I had to say about the Charles Bausman controversy. I first came across Bausman in August 2016, when his Russia Insider website was accused by fellow Putinites of being a scam to make money. Peter Lavelle, a member in good standing of the Kremlin propaganda network, was the focus of an article titled “Bausman and fraud at Russia Insider? Lavelle blows the whistle”  that appeared in Fort Russ, a typical “axis of resistance” website. Lavelle’s investigative reporting revealed:

The website [Russia Insider] consistently claimed that 100% of the proceeds went to ‘journalists’. They misinformed the public that, “We’ll only spend it on journalist salaries, nothing else. Period.”

In the course of Fort Russ’s investigation, it has been explained to us from people very close to the operation that the above claim does not have any merit. According to one anonymous source, formerly very close to this area of Russia Insider’s scheme, none (or a negligible amount) of the money raised by Russia Insider was spent on what can properly be called ‘Journalist salaries’.

So, you get it. Bausman is a shady character.

Bausman makes a bunch of different points, all of them ludicrous. Among them is that hostility to Putin’s Russia is largely a Jewish phenomenon. The evidence? That the biggest enemies of the Kremlin in Congress are Jews, like Chuck Schumer. I suppose that’s so but there was a time when the bedrock of anti-Russian sentiment was Christian, like Joe McCarthy, Robert Taft, Richard Nixon and just about every CIA chief going back to Kermit Roosevelt Jr. Bausman is basically constructing a dichotomy between the neocons and Clintonite liberals like David Frum and Schumer on one side and the good, open-minded Gentile, Trump-supporting politicians like Mike Pence on the other who want a “reset” with Russia. At some point, it will become obvious that Trump is taking his marching orders from the traditional Slavophobic elements in the GOP and that these distinctions based on ethnicity are idiotic. That the White House has authorized the shipment of weapons to Kiev should be proof enough.

Next targeted by Bausman is the Jewish-controlled media like the N.Y. Times and the Washington Post (is Jeff Bezos Jewish?). This is an old story that is based on a cherry-picking of ownership data. Yes, the N.Y. Times is owned by Jews but there are other powerful media figures who are not Jewish, like Rupert Murdoch and the Hearst dynasty. If you look at the WSJ, you will find the same hostility to Putin that you can see in the N.Y. Times. It is not driven by religion or ethnicity but by geopolitics.

Bausman is stupid enough to repeat the canard about October 1917 being a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy funded by Wall Street. This is the kind of garbage that people like Henry Ford spread and hardly worth replying to. Indeed, Bausman’s article was so outrageous that even the Putinites have disowned him. The Duran, an awful mouthpiece for Assadist propaganda, published an article titled “Russia Insider goes Goebbels: debunking Charles Bausman’s warped vision of Russian reality” that makes excellent points, similar to my own:

In Britain none of the four most stridently anti-Russian newspapers – the London Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and the Guardian – have Jewish proprietors.

In the case of the London Times the proprietor is the Australian/American billionaire publisher and businessman Rupert Murdoch, who is known to micromanage his newspapers, and who is also known to be extremely hostile to President Putin and to Russia.

I recommend a look at www.toinformistoinfluence.com, which basically aggregates all of the articles written about Bausman. I honestly don’t think that he is a beacon of shifting attitudes in the pro-Kremlin milieu. Considering his salute to Richard Spencer that appears as an update to his article, it would seem that Bausman is aligning himself with the alt-right. Given his shady con artist past, it is plausible that he is trying to tap into whoever is funding the neo-Nazi movement in the USA.

The important question is whether any of this is reflected on the left. Bausman was never really the kind of person whose articles would show up in Alternet but there are some characters who have managed to inveigle themselves into the left, like Israel Shamir who was Assange’s man in Russia, and Gilad Atzmon. As fucked up as they are, neither of them has much influence.

Despite the spectacle of the alt-right chanting “The Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, anti-Semitism is a non-starter in the USA and will remain so. If you study German history, you will understand that the Muslims and the Latino immigrants are playing the role of scapegoat today. Let me conclude with links to articles I have written about anti-Semitism in the past:

https://louisproyect.org/2016/09/05/the-problem-with-anti-semitism/

https://louisproyect.org/2014/07/25/the-anti-semitism-canard/

https://louisproyect.org/2014/01/25/thoughts-on-diana-johnstone-and-dieudonne-mbala-mbala/

https://louisproyect.org/2011/09/29/the-gilad-atzmon-controversy/

https://louisproyect.org/2009/03/13/anti-zionism-anti-semitism-anti-dogmatism/

And some others relevant to the topic:

https://louisproyect.org/2014/10/09/jews-and-the-left/

https://louisproyect.org/2009/06/19/my-life-as-a-jew/

Finally, all of these articles and others have been aggregated in two places, with a fair amount of overlap:

https://louisproyect.org/category/jewish-question/

https://louisproyect.org/category/anti-semitism/

http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish.htm

 

Northern Syria: Massive ethnic cleansing, humanitarian catastrophe, foreign intervention and betrayal

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

via Northern Syria: Massive ethnic cleansing, humanitarian catastrophe, foreign intervention and betrayal

January 21, 2018

Sunset Song

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

In my last post, I referred to Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment”, an exceptionally important film distributed by Magnolia that I discovered going through my 2015 backlog. Now working my way systematically through the 2016 Magnolia DVD’s, I have happened upon another jewel that should be of particular interest to Marxists, namely “Sunset Song”. The film was based on a 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon that reflected his socialist beliefs. It is the story of a Scottish farming family that begins in 1890 or so and that culminates in the impact WWI has on Chris Guthrie, the sole surviving member of that family working their land. Despite the name, Chris is a woman who always corrects people when they refer to her as Chrissie. She says, “Call me Chris. I am not from the gentry.”

This deeply moving film was directed by Terence Davies, who like Rick Alverson was unfamiliar to me. As was the case with Alverson, “Sunset Song” will likely lead me to a survey of his work. Born in 1945 and still going strong, Davies was the youngest of ten children of working-class Catholic parents who broke with his religion. He is also a gay man who explored the gay experience in a number of films that number only seven in a long career, the explanation for which is that he refuses to compromise. Thank god.

One imagines that Davies decided to adapt Gibbon’s novel partly because the Guthrie family patriarch was an authoritarian figure who punched and strapped his teen-aged son Will for taking the Lord’s name in vain. In Davies’s first film, “Distant Voices, Still Lives”, there is a domineering father that he described as semi-autobiographical, a man that was described as “powerful, domineering, violent” in a book published by the British Film Institute. In a 2011 poll taken by Time Out to rate the 100 greatest British films of all time, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” came in third.

When I referred to John Guthrie, the father of Chris and Will, as a patriarch, I chose my word carefully since his household is a study in patriarchal oppression, especially over his wife Jean who appears to be in her forties when the film begins. Besides the teenagers, there are two young boys to raise. Not caring a whit about the burdens she carried by looking after the household that lacked electricity in the Scottish countryside, her husband was intent on increasing their numbers. When Jean told him that she would be opposed to becoming pregnant again, he raped her—bringing twin boys into the world. Driven to madness by her plight, Jean poisons herself and the twins.

With her mother’s death, Chris assumes the role of cook, housecleaner and farmhand despite not being able to continue with her college studies. Notwithstanding the hardships of farm life, she was content, even fulfilled, with her role. She felt a deep affinity with farm life and can even be seen in the opening moments of the film stretched out in a wheat field with a look of perfect bliss on her face. Gibbon’s novel, which is in the public domain,  conveys her spiritual ties to the material world she inhabits:

The sowing time was at hand, John Guthrie put down two parks with grass and corn, swinging hand from hand as he walked and sowed and Will carried the corn across to him from the sacks that lined the rigs. Chris herself would help of an early morning when the dew had lifted quick, it was blithe and lightsome in the caller air with the whistle of the blackbirds in Blawearie’s trees and the glint of the sea across the Howe and the wind blowing up the braes with a fresh, wild smell that caught you and made you gasp. So silent the world with the sun just peeking above the horizon those hours that you’d hear, clear and bright as though he paced the next field, the ringing steps of Chae Strachan–far down, a shadow and a sunlit dot, sowing his parks behind the steadings of Peesie’s Knapp.

Much of Gibbon’s novel can be heard as a voice-over in Davies’s film and works much better than it does in these circumstances. Key to that was the director/screenwriter’s careful selection of the most poignant passages, all contributing to the portrayal of a strong woman struggling to assert herself in a deeply patriarchal society.

When John Guthrie dies, Chris takes ownership of the farm and settles into the daily rhythms of milking cows, tending to the wheat field, and other chores. Then, unexpectedly, a man named Ewan, a friend of her brother who has departed to Argentina, begins courting her. They marry and bring a son into the world.

But this domestic bliss is broken by the calamity that swept across Europe in 1914. WWI became a gaping maw hungry for fresh blood, including Ewan. Sitting at home with their pacifist-minded friends, none have the slightest interest in defeating the Kaiser even though social patriotism has become an epidemic, even at the local church where the pastor delivers a blood-curdling speech about stopping the Germans. But peer pressure on Ewan becomes insurmountable and he has little choice except to enlist.

Throughout the film, there are set pieces of the Scottish celebrations of weddings and other festive occasions with the characters singing folk tunes and hymns beautifully. If you’ve seen either the 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” starring Julie Christie or the 2015 version that is just as good, you will get a sense of what tied people to the land even if farming life tends to be considered “rural idiocy” by many Marxists.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon (a pen name for James Leslie Mitchell) came into contact with this world as a reporter for the Aberdeen Journal in 1917 and later for the Farmers Weekly. This was around the same time he joined the British Socialist Party that would become one of the 3 groups coalescing to become the Communist Party.

For a very moving commemoration to Gibbon, I strongly recommend Paul Foot’s 2001 article from the Socialist Review titled “Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Poet of the Granite City”. He writes:

In 1917, at the age of 16, he ran away to Aberdeen and got a job as a cub reporter on a local paper. In Aberdeen he joined the trades council, which had a fine history and had welcomed many famous socialist speakers at its meetings. The official history of the trades council recalls with special pleasure the visit of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor and the magnificent rendering of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind by her friend Edward Aveling. Like many other British cities in 1917, Aberdeen had a new soviet, formed in solidarity with the Russian Revolution. The soviet’s most enthusiastic founder was the 16 year old Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Not much later the young socialist moved to Glasgow where he got a job on Farmers Weekly. He was sacked after a few months for fiddling his expenses so that he could make donations to the British Socialist Party, one of the three organisations that merged to form the Communist Party in 1920. He was promptly blacklisted by the newspaper employers in the west of Scotland, and could not get a job anywhere as a journalist. So he joined the army and travelled round the world as a not altogether loyal member of the Royal Army Service Corps. In nine years in the army (1919-28) he developed a taste and a talent for travel writing. His descriptions of faraway places have stood the test of time, and many of them have been reprinted.

“Sunset Song” can be seen on Youtube for a mere $2.99 as indicated the clip above. Don’t waste any time. This is a great film based on a novel written by a conscious revolutionary who deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

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