Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 10, 2019

Capital in the 21st Century

Filed under: capitalism,Film,Keynesianism — louisproyect @ 8:21 pm

This minute, the documentary “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is playing at the SVA Theater as part of the DOC NYC film festival. Obviously, this review is behind the curve but you will still be able to see it in theaters in April 2020. It is based on Thomas Piketty’s 816-page book of the same name, with Piketty reprising the same arguments found there. Since I doubt that many of my readers, including me, have read Piketty’s book, the film is must-viewing if for no other reason that it will familiarize you with the post-Keynesian foundation upon which the book rests. Besides Piketty, you will hear from other economists and social scientists who are trying to figure out a way to combat neoliberalism without going the whole hog and becoming—god forbid—Marxists. This includes among others Joseph Stiglitz, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times, and Suresh Naidu, a youngish Columbia University professor who organized a conference there celebrating the work of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Bowles and Gintis are famous (or infamous) for their criticisms of “orthodox Marxism”, i.e., Marxism. I have a strong suspicion that post-Keynesianism or post-Marxism (about the same thing really) will give you a leg up in a tight job market in the academy.

The film begins with Piketty reminiscing about a trip he took to Eastern Europe and Russia just after Communism collapsed. This weighed heavily on his mind since it dramatized the vulnerability of society when its economic foundations begin to be eaten away, as if by termites. The lessons he drew were a major inspiration for his book that essentially warned about capitalism’s vulnerability as its elites develop the same kind of indifference to the pain as that of the bureaucracy toward those on the bottom of the “Communist” world. To help him drive home these points, he includes another expert not ordinarily associated with post-Keynesian thought, namely Francis Fukuyama whose reputation was based on the idea that liberal capitalist democracies would soar above the wreckage of the USSR and other post-capitalist societies. In an interview with the New Statesman in October 2018, Fukuyama echoed the main idea found in Piketty’s writings, as well as Stiglitz, Krugman, et al. Asked how he viewed the resurgence of socialism in the USA, he replied:

It all depends on what you mean by socialism. Ownership of the means of production – except in areas where it’s clearly called for, like public utilities – I don’t think that’s going to work.

If you mean redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth that has emerged then, yes, I think not only can it come back, it ought to come back.

For the first half of the film (roughly 60 minutes), we get a history of capitalism from the 18th century to the current day. It is very informative and of great use even to people like me, who believe that New Deal economics is never coming back.

The chief worry of Piketty is that we are returning to the 18th century when the common folk lived in terrible conditions. Economist Kate Williams claims that the average life expectancy was 17 years at the time (it was probably more like 40, which of course is also a horrible sign of inequality). It was also nearly impossible for a commoner to become middle-class or wealthy, a function of fortunes being handed down from generation to generation. A large part of Piketty’s critique of capitalism is its susceptibility to dynasty-building of the kind that existed under feudalism. Drawing upon a rich trove of stock footage and old movies, we see a snippet of a scene from “A Tale of Two Cities” that shows Basil Rathbone as a French aristocrat sneering at the idea that ordinary people should get a fair share of society’s wealth. To reinforce this point, we see excerpts from “Les Miserables”, a very good film based on the Victor Hugo novel.

Finally, relief came in the form of new societies created in virgin territories in the British colonies like North America, New Zealand (where the film was produced) and Australia where the class system did not have the chance to consolidate, or at least not to the extent of Europe. Unfortunately, the film does not refer to the fate of the indigenous peoples but frankly there’s not much attention paid to them in Marx either.

As capitalism matured in the 19th century, its growth slowed down because of rivalries between various empires, England and France the foremost. Eventually, the competition became so extreme that the solution took the form of intermittent warfare and, finally, the Great War that led to millions dying and capital going up in smoke. Piketty argues that one good thing came out of it: the dissolution of feudal privilege that had persisted under capitalism, particularly with the Junkers ruling class in Germany.

The Great Depression and WWII had the same contradictory effect. On one hand, it caused death and suffering. On the other, it led to social democratic reforms that allowed working people to be entitled to health, education and housing benefits that never would have existed in the 18th or 19th century. Once again, the film brackets out an important factor that would help make this understandable, namely the existence of the USSR as an alternative to the capitalist system. Would the New Deal, England under Labour, Sweden, et al have existed without the communist alternative putting pressure on the ruling classes? I would argue not. Suresh Naidu, the most impressive of the post-Keynesians heard from in the film, is also honest enough to say that the prosperity that made such programs possible owed a lot to WWII that put people back to work and fostered economic growth, a function of military Keynesianism, the only fruitful application of Keynes’s theories.

The second half of the film examines the worrisome tendency of capitalist economies to revert to the 19th century and earlier as all of the gains of the welfare state are eradicated. A good part of this is devoted to a searing critique of the Reagan and Thatcher regimes that set in place the neoliberal model that has led to the gross inequalities of today, including under New Labour and Clinton-type presidencies. Piketty maintains that the model was built on a lie. Workers were told that even if the gap between their income and the capitalist class would grow as a result of trickle-down economics, they would still be better off because the pie would also grow exponentially. The workers slice might decrease from 25 percent to 20 percent but if the pie doubled, they’d still be better off. Piketty, Stiglitz, et al supply the statistical evidence that shows most workers living only slightly better than decades ago, with the poorest among them even having a loss of real income.

The film ends with an appeal for political action that might reverse the by now 50-year decline of working class security and income. In April of this year, Stiglitz sat down with the dreadful Andrew Ross Sorkin of the NY Times to discuss the renewal of interest in socialism. Stiglitz reassured Sorkin that Sanders’s agenda is not focused on “ownership of the means of production” or a statist system. Instead, “He’s really concerned about the social contract of health, education.” As for Stiglitz, he also supports a return to the good old days of liberal democracy but under private ownership as indicated by the title of his new book “People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent.”

What Piketty, Stiglitz, et al don’t seem to grasp (or grasping it, disavow it) is the structural barriers to liberal democracy or even social democracy that Stiglitz correctly described as having little to do with socialism. The film pointed out that the pie has not been growing, a function no doubt of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. In areas where it has been growing, it has been at the expense of democracy such as in China. As Suresh Naidu pointed out in the film, it was WWII that broke the back of the Great Depression, not New Deal measures.

WWIII anybody? No thanks.

November 8, 2019

Socialism in Our Time?

Filed under: Counterpunch,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

Mr. Clean Break


Until now, Catalyst has not published an article defending the “dirty break”, “inside-outside” tactic. In the latest issue, however, you can read a gargantuan article (14,258 words) titled “A Socialist Party in Our Time?” that is behind a paywall. One imagines (ahem) that getting a copy will not be that difficult in an age when information yearns to be free.

The co-authors are graduate students, Jared Abbott at Harvard and Dustin Guastella at Rutgers. Both are also DSA members and—I’ll bet—Bread and Roses members. They start by offering a socialist version of the Goldilocks story. On the American left, there are three beds. One is “movementist”, preferring demonstrations to electoral politics. But it is too “narrow” a bed since it cannot translate its street actions into policy. The other bed is also too narrow since it belongs to the “sectarian” left that stubbornly avoids all contact with the Democratic Party and sees the fight for socialism only possible by joining up with one of their Leninist groupuscules.

Abbot and Guastella invite us to snuggle up into the only bed that is the right size for any sensible person. It is “like the mass parties of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an organization that competes for elections, mobilizes a mass base, and has a democratic internal structure.” This describes the socialist parties of the early 20th century and the Communist Parties later on. Since the DSA is too small to effectuate a “clean break” for such a party, it instead has to be tactically clever and oh-so dirty.

Continue reading

The Archive: How McCarthyism forced an American lawyer into exile

Filed under: Film,McCarthyism,repression — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

The six-year old David Drucker

Bronchitis prevented me from attending press screenings for this year’s DOC NYC Film Festival that runs from November 6th to the 15th but I did manage to see a documentary short titled “The Archive” that will be shown alongside other films at the Cinépolis Chelsea this Saturday, November 9th, at 9:30pm.

The Archive” tells the story of David Drucker who was a victim of McCarthyism in the 1950s like thousands of other Americans. His background will be familiar to anybody who has reviewed this history. His parents were Russian Jews who fled Czarist oppression at the turn of the century and came to live in New York City.

David Drucker got a law degree and went to work for a trading company set up to facilitate commercial ties between the USA and the USSR. During the 1930s and 40s, this would have been an entirely aboveboard professional association but as soon as the Red Scare began, anybody with Soviet ties began to be considered a traitor. The film deploys footage of J. Edgar Hoover’s testimonies before Congress and other sordid reminders of the past most effectively.

Director Peter Spence and Drucker’s daughter Emily Drucker Collins will be there for the Q&A.

Other shorts to be shown at the 9:30 screening include one on the legacy of cotton in the American South, a subject much on my mind now while reading Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”. Another is on NY’s cab drivers, who are facing a deep crisis over medallion debts and competition from Uber. Put succinctly, these are my kinds of films and likely yours if you’ve been reading this blog over the years.

November 6, 2019

Peppermint Candy

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

In a stellar Nation Magazine review of “Parasite”, the overhyped new Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho, E. Tammy Kim writes:

South Korea’s best filmic interpreter of class and social inequality is not Bong but Lee Chang-dong, who made last year’s elegiac Burning as well as Poetry (2010) and one of my all-time favorites, Peppermint Candy (1999). But Lee is too understated to draw the kinds of audiences that Bong can. Asked about his hopes for Parasite, Bong said that it “is in parts funny, frightening, and sad, and if it makes viewers feel like sharing a drink and talking over all the ideas they had while watching it, I’ll wish for nothing more.” Which ideas does he have in mind? Inequality, betrayal, and a kind of we’re-all-doing-our-best both-sides-ism are most apparent. The film doesn’t push us further—to mull Korea’s crisis of affordable housing, discrimination against the poor, fetishization of English and Western commodities, and glut of overeducated, underemployed youth driving the parasitic family’s scheme.

Just by coincidence, I urged FB friends to see “Peppermint Candy”, a film I reviewed twenty years ago. Below is that review followed by a link to a YouTube video that will allow you to see the film for only $2.99. It is a masterpiece that deserves the kind of accolades the crowd-mentality critical establishment is now lavishing on “Parasite”.

Peppermint Candy

Even if it were not a great film, “Peppermint Candy” would be worth seeing just as a guide to the dramatic changes in post-dictatorship South Korea. While ostensibly a Citizen Kane type morality tale about an evil man, it is really a mirror held up to a country whose two main pillars were military/police brutality and worship of mammon.

A group of people in their forties are at a reunion picnic on the bank of a river beneath a railway bridge. Into their midst wanders a man in a business suit who is either drunk or demented, or both. Soon they remember that he is Yongho, a fellow worker from 20 years ago. After encouraging him to take part in their gaiety, he begins to shriek and howl during a Karaoke performance. He climaxes this act by jumping into the river with his business suit on, slapping at the water like a madman. Then he mounts the railroad bridge, where he stands in the middle of the tracks awaiting a train that might come barreling out of a tunnel at any moment. Ignoring their calls to come down to safety, he finally meets an oncoming train with the cry, “I’m going back.”

In a series of flashbacks, we do go back with Yongho and discover what has driven him to suicide. His “Rosebud” is nothing less than the social role imposed by South Korean society in its rise to “success” in the post 1980s. “Peppermint Candy” is mainly an attempt to rip the pleasant facade off this image.

Yongho has decided to kill himself for two reasons. As the president of a small company wrecked on the shoals of the recent economic crisis, he has no other options. We learn through the most immediate flashback that he is living in a shack and can not afford the price of a cup of coffee. With the last little bit of his disposable income, he has bought a pistol. Before shooting himself, he ponders over who he will take with him. The list appears endless. In reality, it is the system that is at fault. He is also ready to kill himself for the pain he has inflicted on others, both those close to him and those who have wandered into his murderous path as soldier and cop.

Each flashback is preceded by camera shots of a train speeding along the South Korean countryside played in reverse. As people and animals walk backward along the track, we travel back in time to find out how Yongho went wrong.

Before becoming a businessman, he learn that he was a cop. In 1987 the cops have apprehended a student leader who is taken back to the station-house to be tortured. They want him to divulge the name of a leading pro-democracy activist. Yongho, the most sadistic and experienced cop, holds the student’s head under water while wearing an impassive, almost bored, expression on his face.

It wasn’t always this easy. In 1984 when he was a rookie cop, he was initiated into the art of torture. After a trade unionist prisoner shits on him during a session, he rushes into the bathroom to wash himself off. While peeing, another more seasoned cop casually mentions to him that he will not be able to forget the smell. That is what “Peppermint Candy” is about mostly, a man learning how, but never successfully so, to get over the smell.

Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in 1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them “bitches,” as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho’s peppermints pour out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is not allowed.

The soldiers are dispatched to Kwangju, where students and workers have been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation, just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.

When we finally arrive at 1979, we discover an entirely different Yongho at the banks of the river, where the original picnic took place. He is a shy young man in love with nature who presents Sunim with a flower that he has picked from the banks. When he sits beneath the railroad bridge, tears come to his eyes perhaps because he is overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounds him. Like Citizen Kane, this kind of innocence will be stolen from him as he becomes part of the dominant culture in Korean society.

NY critics have had some trouble connecting South Korea with the individual Yongho. The program notes at the New Directors/New Film series state: “In epic style, it covers the dissolution of a man and the development of a nation.” It would be more accurately worded: “the simultaneous dissolution of a man and a nation.” The NY Times warns that “a political dimension to Yongho’s malaise is evident, but also, for one not intimately familiar with recent South Korean history, hard to grasp.” Perhaps the critic suffers from relying on the NY Times coverage on South Korea, which goes a long way to explaining why things are hard to grasp. The systematic brutality depicted in the film never made its way to the front pages of the newspaper, which was much more interested in “economic miracle” and the dictatorship’s support for anti-Communist initiatives in the region.

“Peppermint Candy” was directed and written by Lee Chang Dong and stars Sol Kyung Gu as Yongho in the most impressive acting performance that I have witnessed this year. In the unlikely event that “Peppermint Candy” is released for general distribution, it is not to be missed.

November 5, 2019

When Lambs Become Lions; The Elephant Queen

Filed under: Africa,Ecology,Film,poaching — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

Long before the African elephant became the poster child of wildlife preservation and ecology activists, I became aware of their precarious condition when I saw John Huston’s “Roots of Heaven” in 1958. Based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conducted nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa, it was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

In my 2014 review of the film, the first time I had seen it since 1958, I wrote:

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

This week I saw two new documentaries filmed in Kenya that rekindled my interest in the preservation of the African elephant. One, titled “When Lambs Become Lions”, opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on November 22nd and at the Village East in NYC on December 6th. It is the story of poachers like the kind that were the villains in Huston’s film on one side and the game wardens on the other who have orders to shoot to kill any poacher. What gives the documentary particular interest, beyond the question of the elephant’s survival, is that the two main subjects of the film—a poacher and a cop—are cousins and very close. The other is titled “The Elephant Queen”, a family-oriented portrait of a herd led by Athena, a 50-year old animal ruling over a matriarchy that faces death from a drought rather than from poachers. It premieres on Apple’s new streaming service meant to compete against Netflix and Amazon Prime for $4.99 a month.

The films complement each other. They help to show both the importance of the elephant to the Kenyan ecosphere and the utter waste of a precious living natural resource as a result of the vain consumption of ivory for chintzy carvings sold to the Chinese nouveau riche,

We first meet the poacher in “When Lambs Become Lions”, who is only identified as “X”. He comes from a family that has been poaching for decades, including his father who was killed in the act by park rangers when X was only a child. Not having the stomach to see an elephant killed, he has an underling named Lucas carry out the act using a bow and arrow laced by poison drawn from a frog. It seems likely that these poachers are drawing upon tribal traditions that go back for centuries just like some American Indians who kill whales. However, when such practices become monetized in a society dominated by severe poverty, they are much more capable of leading to extinction.

X’s cousin Asan is a prime example of such precariousness. He and his fellow park rangers haven’t been paid for two months. When a government representative meets with them, they want to know when they will be paid. He shrugs his shoulders and tells them that he has no idea. He adds that if this does not meet their needs, they can find another job.

In a conversation between X and Asan, we learn that the park ranger had also been a poacher earlier in life. We soon begin to understand that both occupations, breaking the law and enforcing it, come with risks. The poacher risks being shot down by a ranger while the ranger has to risk penury because the Kenyan government will not live up to its fiscal responsibilities. Towards the end of the film, we see the new president Uhuru Kenyatta making a speech about the need to save the elephants, topped off by the burning of $150 million worth of tusks. One wonders why he can’t act decisively to keep the police force paid on time, especially since they are probably not making very much money to begin with.

During the film, Anas’s wife gives birth. One wonders how close she came to being denied basic health services because Kenyatta’s Ministry of Health officials stole nearly $50 million of funds allocated to the national free maternity program. In a society dominated by illegality, can anybody be surprised that those on the bottom imitate those at the top?

In an interview with director Jon Kasbe, who spent three years embedded in both X and Asan’s social milieu to gain their trust, he is asked if why the film did not result in a call to action, as is typically the case with documentaries about elephants or rhinoceroses facing extinction because of tusk poaching. He answered:

We hope that the film challenges the existing conversation around poaching. We can’t focus on the preservation of animal life without considering the economic realities and perspectives of the people who have shared land with these animals for a long time. While it is not an overt message in the film, we feel the story can point attention to the lack of proper pay, resources, and training given to wildlife rangers. These rangers are expected to live in the bush 26 days out of the month and oftentimes don’t have basic necessities like boots, clean water, food, or blankets. I spoke to many hunters who said it would be much harder to bribe rangers who had better work conditions. In fact, many poachers claim they would consider switching sides for good, if it meant stable pay and proper resources.

“The Elephant Queen” is a throwback to the heavily anthropomorphized Walt Disney documentaries that I grew up watching and loving as a kid. Athena, the matriarch, is always being described by narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor as “worried” or “sad” about some threat to her family’s well-being. There are also touches that smack of video and audio editing meant to entertain a child or early teen. When a dung beetle narrowly misses being stepped on by an elephant, we hear it squeak in alarm. I am no dung beetle expert but I doubt that any sound like that every came out of a dung-beetle’s mouth. The video editing is less egregious. It is obvious meant to draw out the full drama of an African elephant’s odyssey in search of water and food, even if it sometimes has a “staged” quality.

All that being said, it is a great documentary that like “When Lambs Become Lions” is a labor of love. Co-Directors Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent four years in close proximity to Athena’s family in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park that was prime territory for poachers until the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservation partners beefed up security.

Essentially, the film might be subtitled “The ecology of a waterhole” since 90 percent of the film shows the web of life that an elephant and a water source can nurture. The waterholes are home to elephants, bullfrogs, chameleons, dung-beetles, killifish, and terrapins—all of which are captured in minute detail by Mark Deeble’s camera. The elephant defecates and the dung-beetle rushes up to siphon off a ball of the stuff that he can then stash away for future meals. It is absolutely captivating.

Whether or not you decide to become an Apple TV+ subscriber is up to you. I would only urge you to take out a trial membership just so that you and your children—if you have any—can see a powerful film about a creature that was placed on earth not to furnish tusks to the poaching industry but to keep the humble dung-beetle and all other creatures both large and small alive and healthy.


November 3, 2019


Filed under: Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

The first thing that strikes you about Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is its open homage to two of Martin Scorsese’s films: “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”. From “Taxi Driver”, it borrows the main character’s borderline personality and the portrayal of New York City as hell on earth. Travis Bickle, the Vietnam vet evidently suffering from PTSD, puts it this way: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

While “King of Comedy” is not considered vintage Scorsese, it was made to order for Todd Phillip’s main character Arthur Fleck, whose last name even evokes De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver”. In “King of Comedy”, De Niro plays an aspiring stand-up comedian who idolizes Jerry Langford, the Johnny Carson-like late night host played by Jerry Lewis. To connect with Scorsese’s film, De Niro is cast as late night host Murray Franklin in “Joker” but with much more of a mean streak—think of David Letterman waking up on the wrong side of bed. Now about the same age as Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy” and endowed with the same kind of geezer cockiness, De Niro is the best thing about “Joker”.

Unlike the muscular and fearless Travis Bickle, Arthur Fleck is a downtrodden sad sack who has been picked on his whole life. We meet him working as a clown on the streets of New York in 1981. He holds an advertising sign above his head meant to draw customers into the shop he dances about in front of. Within a few seconds, a gang of teens (mostly Latino, it appears) grabs the sign from him and runs down the street with him in hot pursuit. When he catches up with them in an alley, they beat the living daylights out of him. One cannot be sure of director Todd Phillip’s intention, but this evokes the “wilding” episodes of the 1990s that gained notoriety through the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five. Or perhaps Phillips simply wanted to indicate that the city was infested with sadistic teens.

More directly related to the period, Fleck is riding the subway home late at night in his clown costume when a trio of drunken “Wall Street” guys (employees of the future Batman’s father Thomas Wayne, as it happens) begin to harass a young woman seated opposite them. Afflicted with a mental illness that turns out to be sui generis, Fleck begins to laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately. This draws the trio’s attention away from the woman and toward Fleck who is carrying a pistol that a fellow clown gave him for protection (and to make a few bucks through the sale.) When they begin to beat and kick him, he shoots two to death on the subway car and pursues the third in the station, who becomes his last victim. This incident will remind any New Yorker of the Bernhard Goetz attack on four black teenagers in a subway car in 1984. Goetz, a white technician, fired bullets from an unlicensed pistol into all four because he felt that they were trying to rob him.

This scene is simply unbelievable. Anybody who works on Wall Street in an obviously well-paying job, drunk or not, is the last person who will harass a total stranger on a subway train. Most New Yorkers, especially those dressed in business suits, simply want to be left alone. To advance his plot, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver, tried to connect the dots between Thomas Wayne and the future Joker by having him kill the three white-collar workers in his employ. If I had been in a writing session with the two, I would have warned them against such an unlikely act of aggression by people who work in cubicles. Then again, they probably calculated that this would make no difference to a theater audience that cared so little about logic. This is 2019, after all.

Phillips’s problem is that he wanted to capture the malaise of New York City in the early 80s, but blend it with the Batman story. In previous films drawn from the comic book, Gotham (i.e., New York) was much more mythical. In Tim Burton’s hands, there was no attempt to draw analogies with the real city. Most of the action occurred indoors with Jack Nicholson as the Joker stealing every scene. In Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight”, we see more of Gotham’s street life but it is even more disconnected from New York (it was filmed in Chicago.)

Unlike Nicholson and Ledger’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is no master criminal. He is a pathetic figure who makes Walter Mitty look like a hard-nosed realist. Each night he watches De Niro’s Murray Franklin and fantasizes about making an appearance on his show. He does make an appearance one night but not in the fashion he hoped for. One of Franklin’s assistants gets his hands on a video recording of Fleck bombing at a comedy club. Nobody laughs at his jokes and when he himself begins to have one of his psychotic laughing bouts, he is shown the door. When Fleck sees himself being humiliated on national TV, he begins to plot his revenge.

At this point, he is beginning to resemble Travis Bickle who was humiliated by election campaign aide Cybill Shepherd, who was so aghast at his taking her to a 42nd Street porn movie for a date that she told him never to contact her again. In retaliation, he decides to assassinate the liberal politician she is working for.

What makes Todd Phillips a second-rate director/screenwriter compared to Martin Scorsese, who he obviously reveres, is character development. In “Taxi Driver”, we get to know Travis Bickle intimately. Throughout his haunting voice-over monologues that we hear as he drives across city streets late at night, we understand his pain and alienation. We also learn more about his motivation in his conversations with fellow workers and even the campaign worker who found him physically attractive, if clearly “off”. But most of all, the scenes between De Niro and Jodie Foster, playing a 12-year old streetwalker, are some of the most poignant in any film made in the 1970s. Showing a paternal care for her that makes his ultimate violent explosion logical, we see a consistency that is utterly lacking in “Joker”. Throughout the entire film, there is almost no dialog between Fleck and other characters except his mother who is as disturbed as him. In one particularly grotesque scene, he is shown scrubbing her back when she is taking a bath. The only time he expresses himself is when he begins to laugh uncontrollably, like someone with Tourette’s Syndrome shouting four-letter words out of the blue in public.

About that laughing disorder, I checked on it the day after seeing “Joker”. People magazine claims that while the movie never identifies the specific illness, such fits of controllable laughter are based on an actual disorder called the Pseudobulbar Affect, or PBA. When you check Wikipedia on the Pseudobulbar Affect, however, you learn that it has nothing to do with schizophrenia or any other psychosis. Instead, it is connected to a neurological disorder or brain injury. Some researchers look to the role of the corticobulbar pathways. When there are lesions, you can see a failure of voluntary control of emotions.

Obviously, Phillips is not interested in lesions. For him, the laughing goes hand in hand with Fleck’s mental illness that is obviously schizophrenia. Proof of that is his hallucinations of having a romance with a woman who lives down the hall from him. On the day of his appearance on the Murray Franklin show, he walks into her apartment unannounced (the door was unlocked—another touch of illogic in this script) expecting to enjoy some intimacies. When she walks in, she says, “Aren’t you the guy who lives down the hall? What do you want”. When he acts as if she was his girlfriend, she tells him to leave or else she will call the cops.

Obviously this rejection primes him to fire a bullet into Murray Franklin that evening on national TV. His psychosis has finally matured into the condition that will identify him as the Joker from that moment on. This is not the first time that a connection has been made between mental illness and the Joker. In a November 4, 2007 interview with the NY Times, Ledger described his character as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”.

Schizophrenic? In film today, there are very few nationalities that can still be demonized routinely without pushback. Arab terrorists obviously remain the number one favorite of Hollywood hacks, but “crazy people” come in second with hardly anybody taking up their cause. The reality is that schizophrenics never carry out attacks for revenge, such as was the case with Fleck’s killing of Murray Franklin. By and large, they carry out acts of violence against total strangers who voices in their head direct them to push in the path of an oncoming subway train, etc. Another typical victim is the schizophrenic himself who the voices condemn as not worth living.

The best way to prevent such tragedies that are becoming more and more common as hospitals were emptied of the mentally ill years ago after psychotropic drugs like Thorazine were developed is to develop a support network. If they are taken under supervision in group homes, medicated properly, and have social workers looking after them, the violence decreases. There is an allusion to that in “Joker” in  a scene between Fleck and a psychotherapist but that hardly makes up for the utterly backward portrayal of someone suffering from a mental illness.

My advice is to wait for this movie to show up on Amazon Prime. It is certainly not worth the $15 you’d have to pay for it at your local Cineplex. Why it has garnered such raves, including from those on the left who would have you believe it is the second coming of “Battle of Algiers”, is simply beyond me.


November 1, 2019

The political economy of homelessness

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,housing — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm


In 2009, Hollywood tried to get us to care about the nearly 50,000 homeless people in Los Angeles by releasing a film titled “The Soloist”. It starred Jamie Foxx as the real-life, trained classical musician Nathaniel Ayers who ended up on the streets as a result of schizophrenia. This chronic illness makes such people especially vulnerable when tax-starved municipal governments can no longer fund support networks. It was up to LA Times reporter Steve Lopez to tell his story, after happening upon him on the streets playing a cello (in the film, it was a violin). Ayers barely got by from the small donations he received playing on the streets. It was left to Lopez to rescue him from the hell of LA’s streets. You can see Ayers playing the violin here:

This year there’s hope for the salvation of another lost soul from the mean streets of LA. Like Ayers, Emily Zamourka studied in a conservatory. When a homeless man stole the violin that provided a livelihood, the landlord evicted her. She ended up on the streets singing opera, another of her skills. When a cop made a video of her singing in the subway, it soon went viral and led to articles just like the one Lopez wrote for Ayers. As an indication that she might have psychological problems that helped to land her on the streets, she just lost the recording contract because of not showing up for paying gigs.


For most Los Angelenos, the homeless are hardly worth noticing, if not a total infringement on their quality of life. In an October 22nd NY Times article titled “Backlash Against the Homeless As a Crisis Builds in California”, you get the picture of what solid citizens have to put up with:

For many, that breaking point was the worsening squalor in the streets of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where open-air drug dealing is rampant in some spots and where human feces and scattered needles and syringes have been found lying about. Those scenes have also proved a potent symbol for Republicans like President Trump to showcase what they call the failures of liberal urban enclaves.

This year an appeals court ruled that Boise, Idaho did not have the right to make sleeping in public illegal. Dave Bieter, Boise’s Mayor, has now taken the case to the Supreme Court, where the rightwing majority will likely side with him and Trump, even if Boise can hardly be described as a liberal enclave. Oh, did I mention that Bieter is a Democrat and an early supporter of Obama for President in 2008?

Continue reading

October 31, 2019

Parasite: a non-review

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 11:08 pm

A month ago, I asked my NYFCO colleague Avi Offer if he could recommend any films that might pass muster for our year-end awards given my stringent standards. Avi is generally pretty sharp. For example, he wrote about Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”: “If Tarantino had something insightful to say about Hollywood or actors or humanity instead of wasting the audience’s time with shots of people’s feet and other shallow, dull and boring scenes then the film would be much more powerful, provocative, haunting and even poignant.” I couldn’t put it better.

After a minute or so, he told me that “Parasite” was very good. I told him that I liked Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host” but didn’t care for later films like “Snowpiercer” or “Okja” very much. In fact, I walked out of press screenings for both after about 20 minutes. Since he assured me that “Parasite” was a return to the high standards of “The Host”, I thought I’d give it a chance. Well, it was better than “Snowpiercer” or “Okja” but only in the sense that I walked out of a press screening after 40 minutes this time.

This is not meant as a review but only a reaction to what I saw. You can take it with a grain of salt, but for those who tend to agree with my film reviews, this is probably sufficient to warn you off.

This is a story about the Kims, a down-and-out family living in a bug-infested apartment that takes advantage of the Parks, a super-rich but naïve Korean family. The Kim’s father  is played by Kang-ho Song, who has been in many Korean films playing a likable but oafish anti-hero. His wife is sort of his female counterpart. They have one male and one female college-aged children, slackers just like the parents.

The son’s best friend urges him to interview for a tutoring job working with the attractive teen daughter of the Parks since he trusts him not to put the make on her. To help him qualify, his sister uses Photoshop to produce a false credentials establishing him as a college student and tutor. In short order, we learn that the entire family is made up of grifters.

On his first day on the job, he manages to sweep the Park’s teen daughter off her feet. While he is at their opulent townhouse, he notices that her younger brother is an out of control brat with a passion for making ugly self-portraits.

This inspires him to recommend his sister for a job as the kid’s art therapist, pretending that she is a friend of a friend who has been studying in the USA. She uses Photoshop to create phony credentials for herself as well and manages to con the mother into hiring her but at top dollar.

Understanding that the mother is an easy con, they conspire to replace the family chauffeur with their father and the long-time housekeeper with their mom. To get the current chauffeur fired, the sister pulls off her panties as he is driving her home and leaves it on the floor of the back seat, the intention being to make it look like he has been having sex on the job.

This is now about 30 minutes into the film and I am starting to feel restless. The rich people are patsies and the poor people are there to suck them dry. Like parasites, I suppose. Of all the characters I have seen to that point, none are likable. In fact, they are uniformly repellent.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was how they got rid of the housekeeper. After they learned that she was allergic to peaches, they began shaving off the fuzz from peaches and dropping them on the back of her neck when she wasn’t looking. The fuzz made her have huge coughing attacks, kind of like the bronchitis that has been hobbling me until 3 or 4 days ago. When she goes to a clinic to get treated, papa Kim takes her photo when she isn’t looking and informs the rich family’s father that she has TB just to get her fired.

I sat in my plush screening room seat and scratched my head. Peach fuzz causing coughing attacks? WTF? And she is going to be fired without the rich family looking at the results of a test from the clinic that would certainly not indicate TB? I tried to picture myself as a producer working on the film and reading the script. I’d ask Bong Joon Ho how he came up with such a cockamamie plot twist. Needless to say, with his clout he’d find a producer to replace me on the spot. That’s the problem with all these celebrated writer/directors like Tarantino and Bong Joon Ho. Nobody has the guts to say the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Although I have not seen “Joker” yet, I have a feeling that the two films have this much in common. They are supposed to be about class warfare but hardly having anything to do with the sort of film a John Sayles or a Gillo Pontecorvo would make.

Seeing that “Parasite” had a fresh rating of 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (I won’t be posting a review since I walked out), I was curious to see who the dissidents were. Ironically, there were only two and both were fellow members of NYFCO.

One was a hard-core Stalinist named Prairie Miller who had (or maybe still has) a show on WBAI where I used to make guest appearances. All that came to an end after I started writing articles supporting the overthrow of Assad. Now she won’t even speak to me, even at our yearly awards meeting. In any case, I think she got the film right:

Though billed as a kind of South Korean anti-capitalism satire – this eat the rich outing when not eating its own at the bottom of the economic food chain, comes off more as an empty plate…

A somewhat combo tale of two families and exceedingly twisted prince and the pauper dubious Seoul mates turned sour spree, Parasite plays out as the poverty stricken bottom feeder (literally basement dwellers) Kim clan conspires together to pull off an elaborate scheme posing as hired help at the home of the patrician Park family.

All goes well until part of the ploy involving maneuvers to get rid of the existing household workers backfires into over the top mayhem. And as a kind of chaotic both external and internal bloody class warfare ensues. Essentially creating for the amusement of the giddy bourgeois popcorn audience – both consumers and critics – a cinematic 21st century gladiator spree.

The other “rotten” review came from Armond White, the gay African-American conservative who used to be the president of the prestigious NY Film Critics Circle. Later on, he was expelled for heckling Steve McQueen, the director of “12 Years a Slave”, at their annual awards meeting. In his review, White denounced the film as “torture porn.” In my review, I shared White’s take:

As is the case with “Django Unchained”, McQueen’s film is a vehicle for his preoccupations. With Tarantino, these primarily revolve around revenge, a theme common to so many of the Hong Kong gangster or samurai movies that he has absorbed. For McQueen, the chief interest is in depicting pain with some of the most dramatic scenes involving whippings and other forms of punishment.

Although I can’t stand White’s politics, I think he is one of the sharper film critics around. Indeed, despite his rightwing fanaticism, his critique of “Parasite” overlaps with Miller’s: “Bong wants his politics both ways: targeting and humiliating the wealthy, high-living entrepreneurs while sentimentalizing and sympathizing with the dishonest, corrupt agitators who angle to swindle them.”

If I wrote a full review, this is what I would focus on. The totally misanthropic view that both the rich and poor are shit. “Snowpiercer” was widely acclaimed as a “radical” film set on a train in which rich and poor, once again, are at each other’s throats. In the 20 minutes I sat watching it, I could not detect a shred of leftist politics.

Slant Magazine, a source of some of the most insightful film reviews (music, TV as well), was not impressed. The review  ended on this note: “Snowpiercer concludes on a irritatingly reassuring high note that suggests, per usual, that killing one bad man will allow all of falsely indoctrinated society to magically correct itself. The film could be a conservative parody of naïve liberal piety, if conservatives were known to exhibit a sense of humor.”

October 30, 2019

Taking stock of Elijah Cummings and John Conyers

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

Elijah Cummings

John Conyers

This month two long-time African-American members of the House of Representatives died, Elijah Cummings on the 10th and John Conyers a week later. In a typical liberal encomium, John Nichols of The Nation described Cummings as a supporter of trade union struggles and a celebrated civil rights activist. Conyers, 22 years older than Cummings, had lost most of his prestige after being forced to resign two years ago from his office after a number of women had charged him with sexual harassment. That did not stop his successor Rashida Tlaib from Tweeting “Our Congressman forever, John Conyers, Jr. He never once wavered in fighting for jobs, justice and peace. We always knew where he stood on issues of equality and civil rights in the fight for the people. Thank you Congressman Conyers for fighting for us for over 50 years.” One imagines that if Conyers had not been caught with his pants down in 2017, he would have been put on the same pedestal as Cummings.

To my knowledge, neither of these long-time members of the Congressional Black Caucus has received the scrutiny they deserve. Given the subservience of the Black Caucus to the Obama administration, which was largely responsible for the backlash that allowed Trump to become President, it is worth taking a close look at their record.

Just after his death, one of the highest praises offered up to Elijah Cummings came from the solidly pro-Netanyahu Jerusalem Post that hailed The Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel (ECYP). It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019, proud of its record of sending more than 200 African-American, non-Jewish high school students to Israel. In 2010, Cummings signed the Hoyer-Cantor letter to Secretary of State Clinton that was your typical endorsement of any depravity Israel could come up with. The letter cited VP Biden: “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space.”

Lauded for his wise leadership in keeping Baltimore calm after the cops murdered Freddie Gray in 2016, Cummings refused to call for a federal investigation of the department in 2016 and practically told Democracy Now that all lives mattered:

And so, now, what we have to do is be about the business of what this night is about—that is, not going into separate corners, the community and the police. We have to work together. We have to acknowledge the fact that we love our police officers.

According to the November 2018 Harpers, a unit of this police department has been found guilty of the following acts of robbery and racketeering:

  • Dragging a man from his car and robbing him while he was shopping for blinds with his wife.
  • Pretending drugs found in one man’s trash can belonged to another man and then raiding his home.
  • Seizing drugs off the street and reselling them through a bail bondsman who was photographed in the police station wearing police gear and holding an officer’s gun.
  • Reporting that a gunshot wound was related to police work when it was in fact related to drug trafficking.
  • Looting pharmacies during the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a black teenager who was killed by officers while in police custody.

As for Conyers, there is ample evidence that he had declining cognitive powers in office but nonetheless it is disconcerting to take note of the following.

In 2001, succumbing to the “war on terror” hysteria of the time, Conyers co-sponsoring the Patriot Act of 2001 Jim Sensenbrenner. Sensenbrenner, a Republican, was a real piece of work, calling attention publicly to Michelle Obama’s “big butt”. He was also a nativist and advocated amending the Espionage Act of 1917 to allow journalists to be prosecuted for publishing leaks.

In 2003, Conyers dragged his feet on a Freddie Gray type killing in his home state Michigan. Called the “Benton Harbor, Michigan Intifada of 2003”, the Black community rose up for two nights after the cops murdered an unarmed black motorcyclist. There were other grievances. An African-American pastor named Edward Pinkney was a leader of a struggle against the local recreation site Harbor Shores by outside investors. (The city is 96% Black.) was in jail at the time for trumped-up charges including writing an article calling a local judge racist. When his wife appealed to Conyers to come to the aid of the people, he refused.

In 2008, Dennis Kucinich, who was a Congressman at the time, launched an impeachment inquiry against George W. Bush for his illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like up until recently, Nancy Pelosi sputtered that “impeachment was off the table” back then. When Kucinich proceeded nonetheless, Ralph Nader sent a letter to Conyers asking why he wasn’t being called as a witness, reminding him that they had “several conversations and two meetings” focusing on impeachment. Clearly, Nader was being punished for challenging the two-party system.

Just some words in conclusion. All of the information above was gleaned from the CounterPunch archives. By this point, everybody knows that I regard it as a great asset of the left just for the articles. But I would add that the searchable archives amount to a Lexis-Nexis for the radical movement and reason enough to contribute to the fund-drive.

In looking for something on the Congressional Black Caucus’s decline there, I came across just the perfect article to wrap things up, written no less by managing editor and good cyber-friend Joshua Frank. Written in 2007, “The Demise of the Congressional Black Caucus” will give you an idea not only of the failings of the two recently deceased Congressman but the malaise that affects all the rest of its members:

On September 26 the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the fundraising arm of the legislative conclave, will be hosting a four day Annual Legislative Conference (ALC), which, in the their own words, “provides a platform or the 42 African American Members of Congress to share the progress of their work on legislative items and also allows for the exchange of ideas correlated to policy issues that are of critical concern to their constituents.”

Indeed, the conference provides a platform for Congress’s black politicians, but that stage is not propped up by citizen action, it is instead supported by some of the country’s most influential corporations including; Coca-Cola, Citigroup, Bank of America, General Motors, Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, Shell Oil, Anheuser Busch and many more.

It hasn’t been the best year for the CBC Foundation. Last summer the Black Caucus was compelled to cancel a Democratic Presidential Forum it had planned to do with the Fox News network. Fortunately activists exposed the foundation for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from various branches of the Fox Broadcasting Company. While CBC did not seem to mind the criticism it received from constituents for the group’s association with Fox, Democratic presidential candidates were sensitive to the disapproval and withdrew from the forum, forcing its cancellation.

It isn’t likely that the black community will call for the termination of this month’s Annual Legislative Conference because Shell Oil has a card in the CBC Foundation’s donor Rolodex, despite the company’s blood-spattered history with the Ogoni people of Nigeria. Nor will the members of the CBC abandon support for the event because the Foundation accepts cash from the nation’s largest defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which was recently awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to defend the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.

Evidently the CBC isn’t shy about who its precepts. In fact a look at the ALC’s itinerary of the week’s events is telling enough. Despite that the majority of black Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq, while even more oppose a military foray with Iran, there is not one single session scheduled to discuss these important issues. Lockheed Martin seems to pull more weight than CBC constituents.

Continue reading Josh’s article



October 28, 2019

Auteur missteps: The Wild Pear Tree; Everybody Knows

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:02 pm

Ordinarily, Hollywood films are the only ones I would consider rating as “rotten” on Rottentomatoes.com for the simple reason that independent films, foreign-language films and documentaries—my usual fare—have difficulties enough getting an audience. Reluctantly, I have decided to post a “rotten” review of two recent films by directors who I consider to be among the best in the world today: Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Iran’s Asghar Farhadi. Five years ago, I wrote a review of Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” that began:

For regular readers of my film reviews, you are probably aware that I have referred to Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. After seeing “Winter Sleep” (Kış Uykusu) yesterday, I am ready to upgrade him to the greatest filmmaker today, the only one that can be compared to the masters I encountered in the early 60s: Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al. Unlike any film I have seen in recent years, “Winter Sleep” is as complex and as literary as the classics of a bygone era. In many ways, it is the Turkish equivalent of a Chekhov play with the added visual dimension of the mind-bending landscapes of Cappadocia, the ancient region in Anatolia where houses and temples were carved into the mountains.

Although I was disappointed with Farhadi’s 2016 film “The Salesman”, I stuck to my usual non-aggression pact with art film and neglected to write a “rotten” review. Likely, the good feelings generated by his previous films, the 2011 “A Separation” and the 2013 “The Past”, had a lot to do with this. Unlike his fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who has made outspoken films challenging Islamic Republic repression, Farhadi’s films tend to accept the political status quo even if they describe a society that is coming apart at the seams due to the stifling patriarchal norms.

In a fascinating profile of Farhadi in the January 31, 2019 NY Times Sunday Magazine, they describe the tightrope he walks:

Farhadi has learned, as he says, to speak quietly in his films, and part of this involves trusting his audience to listen for his meanings. In the stark opening shot of “A Separation” (2011), which also won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, a man and a woman, the woman wearing a head scarf (as all female citizens of Iran are required to do in public), look straight into the camera and explain their plight. After years of marriage, they are separating; each is seeking custody of their only child, a 12-year-old girl. As they make their competing arguments (the woman wants to leave the country because she believes their daughter will have a better life abroad; the man says he has to stay to look after his father, who has Alzheimer’s), we realize they are in an Islamic divorce court. The person being addressed is a judge — although it is also, in a way, the viewer, whom Farhadi always enlists as a kind of juror in his moral procedurals. “As a mother, I’d prefer my daughter not grow up in these circumstances,” the woman says. “What circumstances?” the baffled judge, still only a disembodied voice, asks. He doesn’t receive an answer — Farhadi, a master of pacing and suggestive omission, has already ushered us into the next scene — but Iranians, and those familiar with the social conditions under which Iranian women live, will know all too well the circumstances she’s referring to.

I regard “A Separation” as a masterpiece and urge you to rent it on Amazon Prime for only $2.99, where you can also see “Winter Sleep” for just a dollar more.

Considering the overall quality of their films and the respect they command from the critical establishment in the West, I thought it was time to review Ceylan’s latest film “The Wild Pear Tree” that made it into American theaters this year in the hope that it might help me round out my “best of” ballot for NYFCO, the film critics group I belong to. Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows”, which came out in 2018, had its critics but I calculated that even if it was flawed like “The Salesman” it would be a lot better than the Hollywood junk I will be covering next month in advance of the NYFCO awards meeting in December.

Both of these films were self-indulgent and unfocused. Unfortunately, the 95 percent “fresh” reviews for “The Wild Pear Tree” and the 83 percent “fresh” for “Everybody Knows” reflect the free ride “quality” directors get based on past performance. Neither film comes close to the standards of their earlier work and it is likely that in the absence of serious criticism, they will not learn from their mistakes. Even though I doubt that anything I write will get the attention of either Ceylan or Farhadi, perhaps aspiring film students will become cognizant of their defects and be wary of making them themselves as their career unfolds.

As “The Wild Pear Tree” begins, recent college graduate Senin (Dogu Demirkol) has just returned home to Çan, a small city in the Marmara region of Turkey. His most likely career option is teaching in a public school in the country’s eastern hinterlands, a low-paying and emotionally draining job that his father once had until seniority brought him back to Çan where he still teaches.

Senin dreads taking such a job even if he passed the compulsory test that is set at a fairly high bar. He only has dreams of becoming a writer. With a bildungsroman manuscript in hand, which includes a chapter titled “The Wild Pear Tree”, he drops in on the mayor in hopes of getting funding for a first print edition. Evidently, digital self-publishing has not arrived yet in Turkey, or perhaps it never entered Ceylan’s mind to even include such an option for his main character. Since Sinan has an inflated ego, it is something he conceivably ruled out.

Despite his book’s focus on the cultural life of Çan (the rolling hills are filled with wild pear trees), he despises everybody who lives there, including his father who had a gambling addiction that ruined the family. When he runs into a woman he had a crush on in high school, they stroll around an orchard where she is a day laborer. Now wearing a head scarf, she feels some distance from the college graduate who can’t help making patronizing remarks about the city and its people. Even worse, he blurts out that when he lived there, he fantasized about being a dictator who had the power to drop an atom bomb on the city.

The only redeeming feature of “The Wild Pear Tree” is the cinematography. Ceylan started out professionally as a photographer and his portrait of Çan is stunning. This is a place where most people make a living off the land and Ceylan depicts rural Turkey as a charming near-paradise in sharp distinction to Sinan’s alienation from nature. He disdains his father who never stopped loving Çan’s flora and fauna, including the jackals who occasionally raid the shed where he keeps a small herd of lambs.

Sinan’s arrogance reflects the tensions between Turkey’s educated and secular-minded middle class and the pious and mostly rural folk who have voted for Erdogan. Time after time, he challenges both family and friends over their failure to see things the way he does, to the point where his litany becomes grating.

In this three-hour film, Ceylan includes several scenes that last for at least twenty minutes, each one dramatizing this rift. In visiting the local bookstore to see if they would be interested in his book, he spots Çan’s most famous author, a man about his father’s age and a symbol of privilege that he envies. Striking up a conversation with the man, Sinan subtly begins to needle him about failing to see the city with the kind of honesty he supposedly shows in his unpublished manuscript. Uninvited, he follows him outside the bookstore and practically stalks him on his way home, escalating his invective until the elderly author tells him—politely—to get lost.

This is a cringe-worthy twenty minutes of dialogue but nothing nearly so stupefying as the next lengthy scene that has Sinan strolling along the alleys and byways of Çan with a couple of imams who debate each other and him for what seems like an eternity. The conversation seeks to resolve whether God exists, a matter of little interest to Ceylan’s audience and only something that a director supremely convinced of his talents would have ever considered foisting on them.

I doubt that anybody reading this would care much about spoilers but this paragraph will reveal the ending of the film since it is crucial for understanding its failure. Sinan has failed to land a teaching job, sell a single copy of his finally self-published book, and returned home to find his father up to his usual foibles. Perhaps understanding his own limitations for the first time, he recognizes that, despite Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again. But to what end? With nothing but low-paying factory or farming jobs, what are his prospects? The only short-term solution is to help his father who has been digging a well for years on a small plot of land he owns on a hillside. There are two alternative endings that the audience will have to figure out which serves as the best denouement. In the first, we see Sinan hanging from a noose at the top of the well. In the second, we see him at the bottom of the well using a shovel to dig out some boulders that might be the final obstacle to drawing water.

For three hours, we have seen Sinan in one fruitless and one-sided conversation with a wide range of people. With not the slightest indication of emotional growth, what is the basis for accepting his reconciliation with father and countrymen as plausible? A more satisfying film would have avoided the 11th hour menu choices of suicide or salvation and shown Sinan growing as a man and a Turk. One wonders if it is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s inability to conceive of a way forward in Turkey that makes this film such a dispiriting experience. Ultimately a pessimist and an aesthete, Ceylan must find a way to reach a higher level of engagement with Turkish realities to move forward as an artist.

Enjoying relative freedom as an artist because of his non-confrontational stance, Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows” is a Spanish film for all practical purposes. Starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, it is a story about a kidnapping but totally unlike the usual crime melodrama. Instead, it is a family drama revolving around a crisis that brings out the best and the worst of its characters. It is reminiscent of Farhadi’s 2009 “About Elly” that also involves a disappearance, in that instance a woman who drowned in the Caspian Sea during an outing with a group of her friends. The tension in the film derives from assigning blame, just as the case in “Everybody Knows”.

The characters in “Everybody Knows” are an extended family ruled over by a patriarch as feckless in his way as Sinan’s father is in Ceylan’s film. He and dozens of others have come to a small town near Madrid to celebrate the wedding of one of his daughters.

At two hours and thirteen minutes, “Everybody Knows” is a slog but not as bad as “The Wild Pear Tree”. Like Ceylan, Farhadi is self-indulgent. The first thirty-eight minutes of the film consists of people dancing, singing, drinking and feasting. Since Farhadi is prevented from filming such a bacchanalian scene in his homeland, one might gather that he included this material to get something out of his system. One wonders if his non-Iranian audience that enjoys such freedoms finds it very useful in advancing the narrative. After seeing fifteen minutes of them getting drunk and acting stupid, I told my wife that I wish they would all come under a zombie attack that left them dead on the ballroom floor.

Once again a spoiler alert. Go no further if you think you might want to punish yourself by watching “Everybody Knows”.

It turns out that the kidnapping was an inside job. The kidnapping of a teen girl was carried out by men hired by her mother played by Penelopé Cruz, the daughter of the patriarch who owns the land that keeps the extended family afloat, even if meagerly.

They intend to get Javier Bardem to pay the ransom even if it means selling the land that he purchased from the patriarch years ago during his years as a thrifty servant to the clan and made productive through growing grapes for a winery he co-owns. Pressure can be applied on him since he was once Penelopé Cruz’s lover and—as it turns out—the actual father of the supposedly kidnapped girl (a repulsive character, actually.)

There are class distinctions that are hinted at in the film but remain underdeveloped. When the clan is seated around a dining table to discuss what steps to take to rescue the kidnapped girl, there are frequent references to Bardem not only having cheated them but being an upstart who doesn’t belong in their semi-feudal milieu, even if tattered around the edges.

If Farhadi wanted to make a far more compelling film, he should have made the class distinctions far more obvious especially in a country like Spain in which the ancien régime persists in so many ways. The patriarch might have spouted things about how great Franco was, after one of his many drunken binges during the ordeal. For a good idea of how such a drama can unfold, I recommend “The Little Stranger” that I reviewed last year for CounterPunch. It involved the tangled relationship between an aristocratic but now hard-up family in an estate called The Hundreds and a doctor who has a worshipful attitude toward them and the house. I wrote:

The Ayres summon the village doctor to look at Betty, one Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who like the family matron is never mentioned by his first name. Like Betty, he was a villager who grew up in a working-class family. But unlike Betty, he managed to join the middle class mostly because of the sacrifices made by his parents who died young because of overwork. His mother was a maid at The Hundreds who brought him there in 1919 to celebrate Empire Day with the Ayres who were in their heyday. As the name implies, this holiday was created to inculcate children with the belief that they belonged to a glorious Empire, including those in Kenya, India and elsewhere.

Released at the same time as “Everybody Knows”, “The Little Stranger” garnered a 66 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 17 points lower than Farhadi’s film. It deserved better. Way overpriced at $14.99 on all the VOD sites, keep an eye out for it later this year. It should come down based on the ineluctable dynamics of video rentals.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.