Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2004

Hitler’s Hit Parade

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 29, 2004

“Hitler’s Hit Parade” is a documentary montage of theater and home movies, archival footage, animated films, commercials and political propaganda that depicts Germany as an altar to narcissism and kitsch. If one did not know that Germany would eventually have the blood of millions on its hands, it might appear as the most innocent and naïve of nations.

In scene after scene free of voice-over, we see Hitler kissing babies, German youth doing calisthenics with Nazi emblems on their t-shirts, Mercedes-Benzes streaking up the autobahn, German versions of Busby Berkeley dance routines, etc. against a nonstop sound-track consisting of some of the most schmaltzy pop tunes ever recorded. All this material is woven together seamlessly with a minimum of irony even though the material cries out for the sort of italicizing found in a Michael Moore film. In the face of such obviously toxic material, a voice-over would probably prove redundant.

The general theme that emerges through the images is that of a society consumed with health, well-being and normalcy. Children are uniformly well-fed and robust looking. One thirteen year old girl has her jaw width measured by a couple of Nazi doctors as if she were livestock. Everybody is prosperous and happy. They all adore Hitler, who comes across as an avuncular figure who would be tempted to tell Germans that they never had so good on every and any occasion.

Against this uniform fabric of optimism, vigor and physical beauty, you have the discordant Jew who is seen in one unflattering photograph after another. In an animated film, we see a beak-nosed Jew plucking the leaves from a tree in the forest out of spite. This imagery comes on the heels of another film excerpt that describes the German nation as a magnificent tree.

The documentary includes the war years, which are depicted graphically and musically as a struggle by the Volk to maintain their way of life despite the hardships. People can endure blackouts and rationing through the help of cheery tunes. Even when men come back from the Russian front missing a leg, they get back into sports and calisthenics with the help of an artificial limb. These images are eerily evocative of the “human interest” stories about American soldiers trying to make the best of things after getting their legs blown off in the Sunni triangle.

Although the German co-directors Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze had German history in mind when they made this unsettling film, it obviously resonates with the contemporary USA even though the country is nominally democratic. The clash between Red State and Blue State values involves many of the same themes that figure in “Hitler’s Hit Parade.”

The Republicans present themselves as “positive” and “optimistic,” while the Democrats are “negative” and “pessimistic.” Politicians like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush demagogically evoke a corn-fed, bible-toting, apple-cheeked America that accepts authority blindly. The charge against critics is that they are “Un-American,” which means that it refuses to submit to these white-bread values.

Germany obviously had the same kinds of cultural tensions in the 1920s with Weimar socialism, decadent art and Jewry standing in for what is suggested by the term Blue State values today and New York City in particular. The whole thrust of the culture wars is to intimidate those who are not seduced by NASCAR races, mass-oriented Country and Western music, Christmas carols and Walt Disney productions.

Marxist cultural theory has tried to come to terms with kitsch of this sort ever since the 1930s. Wikipedia states the term originates from the German and Yiddish ‘etwas verkitschen’ (which has a similar meaning to “knock off” in English).

For Clement Greenberg, Hermann Broch, and Theodor Adorno, the avant garde and kitsch were opposites. Kitsch was perceived as an assault on culture. Adorno developed many of these ideas when he was living in Los Angeles and directed his wrath at Walt Disney cartoons, etc. When I read “Dialectics of Enlightenment” by Adorno and Horkheimer, I was put off by what appeared as snobbery mixed with academic Marxism. After seeing “Hitler’s Hit Parade,” I have a better sense of what was bugging these Frankfurt school Marxists. It is too bad that they went overboard.

Broch called kitsch “the evil within the value-system of art” and argued that kitsch involved trying to achieve “beauty” instead of “truth.”

In his 1939 essay titled “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” written for the Trotskyist Partisan Review, Clement Greenberg lumped Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia together when it came to the question of kitsch and mass society:

“Where today a political regime establishes an official cultural policy, it is for the sake of demagogy. If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else. The encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. Since these regimes cannot raise the cultural level of the masses — even if they wanted to — by anything short of a surrender to international socialism, they will flatter the masses by bringing all culture down to their level. It is for this reason that the avant-garde is outlawed, and not so much because a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture.”

In a few years, Greenberg would abandon socialism altogether and enlist in the war against Communism using avant-garde art as a heavy artillery weapon against the USSR.

In 1984, the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote about kitsch in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” According to Wikipedia, he argued that kitsch functioned to exclude everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitized view of the world in which “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” Obviously he anticipated what would be happening in the USA twenty years later under a President who deploys down-home kitschiness on behalf of murderous imperialist wars abroad and assaults on the working-class at home. When he is challenged by his critics, he brushes them aside–assisted by a spineless press and Democratic Party. Someday, when this is no longer sufficient to stay the course, he might resort to more repressive measures. At that time, it will be useful to study the lessons of Hitler’s rise.

“Hitler’s Hit Parade” opens at the Film Forum in New York City on January 5th. It is well worth seeing if you are interested in Germany’s past and our future.

December 25, 2004

The Apostle

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:41 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 25, 2004

How appropriate to be writing a review of a film like “The Apostle” on the birthday of the god his followers celebrate. Although Mel Gibson’s “Passion” comes to mind immediately when you think of Hollywood stars bankrolling movies about Christ or Christianity, Robert Duvall took a similar risk in 1997. Unlike Gibson, Duvall is far less interested in proselytizing for a particular religious point of view than in understanding the religious mindset. Written and directed by Duvall and featuring him in the role of the Pentecostal preacher Euliss “Sonny” Dewey, “The Apostle” defies easy interpretations–including from the left.

Sonny Dewey’s Forth Worth church has lots of black parishioners who respond enthusiastically to the ecstatic sermons he belts out while strutting around the tabernacle like James Brown. In the opening scenes we learn that Dewey developed an affinity for the passionate and extroverted style of black preachers while in the company of his black nanny as a young boy.

It should come as no surprise that Sonny has trouble warding off Satan, no matter how many times he has ordered him to get behind. When his wife (Farah Fawcett) tires of his philandering and boozing, he seems incapable of change. Instead of admitting his guilt, he implores her to get down on her knees with him and pray to Jesus in order to rekindle their marriage. She will have none of this, since she has obviously been through this with him too many times in the past.

It turns out that she has already developed a relationship with the youth minister in Sonny’s church and has also convinced the executive committee of the church to fire him. Driven to a blind rage, Sonny crowns the man with a baseball bat at his son’s little league game to the horror of congregation members in the bleachers and his son and daughter whom he calls his “beauties.”

Sonny takes it on the lam from Fort Worth. The only people he trusts at this point are his best friend Joe, whom he saved from a life of booze and promiscuity, and his pious mother. The two are played respectively and more than capably by country singing star Billy Joe Shavers and June Carter Cash, the renowned country singer and late wife of the late, great Johnny Cash.

One of the more captivating moments of this odd but captivating film is June Carter Nash singing a hymn along with Sonny as they drive along a Texas road moments after stopping by the wreckage of a huge, multiple car collision. Sonny takes his bible under his arm and goes to a crumpled car off the side of the road, where he discovers the injured occupants just moments away from death–a teenage boy and girl. Sonny implores them to accept Jesus as their savior so that they can live in bliss for all eternity in heaven with the angels. A highway patrolman shooing Sonny away asks him if preaching does any good. Duvall answers that he would prefer to die that day in god’s good graces than to live for a hundred years in sin.

Sonny leaves everything behind him in Fort Worth and resurfaces as “The Apostle E. F.” in a tiny, impoverished Louisiana town where he attempts with some success to launch a Pentecostal church that attracts poor and African-American worshippers (played mostly to great effect by non-professionals.) Without giving away too much, we can say that he finds redemption here. When a local racist played by Billy Bob Thornton stages an assault on the church, Sonny fends him off at first with his fists and then with prayers. It is a credit to Duvall’s acting and writing skills that we begin to regard Sonny as a kind of hero, especially in light of our wariness about Bible Belt values raised to higher levels after the 2004 elections no doubt.

“The Apostle” generated some expected responses from the left when it came out. The World Socialist Website wrote:

“A film with evangelism as its subject, one would think, ought to attempt to tell its audience something about the source of the attraction of this sort of religious activity for a section of the American population. Is it not the case that poor and oppressed people often turn to this brand of religion–with all its musical and theatrical trappings–in a desperate search for answers to life’s problems, both material and spiritual? The Apostle tells us next to nothing about the basis of fundamentalism’s appeal, nor does it even pose the question.”

Full: http://wsws.org/arts/1998/mar1998/apos-m24.shtml

On the other hand, Jonathan Rosenbaum, a highly respected left-leaning film reviewer from Alabama originally, wrote:

“By refusing to buy into the Elmer Gantry stereotype, which suggests that every fundamentalist preacher who shows signs of being a scoundrel is also a hypocrite, Duvall’s movie throws us into a subculture of devout belief without the sort of moral signposts that many of us city slickers have grown to depend on defensively and as a matter of automatic reflex. Sonny, Duvall’s troubled and troubling preacher, may be a warped creature who lies to himself, but on the basis of everything we see and hear, he believes deeply in saving souls. And by making all the church services interracial, Duvall complicates our responses still further, especially if we stereotype most white fundamentalists as racists. (Or indulge in statistical guesswork, as Amy Taubin did in the Village Voice when she tried to prove that the film is racist. I would claim on the basis of my experience as an Alabama native with some background in the civil rights movement that these integrated services are believable; whether they’re typical is, of course, another matter.)”

I agree completely with Rosenbaum. The film forces us to engage with the main character and the world he inhabits without the usual signposts. The fact that Duvall can make the case for Sonny at all shows that he is a skilled artist and writer. Long ago when I took a writing class at NYU, the instructor made a point that has stuck with me over the years. He said that the greatest characters in world literature are villains, but it takes the talents of a great writer to make such characters interesting or even appealing. That is what Robert Duvall has done.

Although I could find no reference to this in reviews of “The Apostle,” it seems that the film it has the greatest affinity for is Billy Bob Thornton’s “Slingblade.” Both films rely heavily on local color and on a grotesque major character capable of acting for good and evil simultaneously.

Furthermore, both films incorporate a kind of bleak humor that I find irresistible. For example, shortly after Sonny takes it on the lam, he persuades an elderly black man to let him stay the night. After setting Sonny up in his daughter’s pup tent on the back lawn (which he calls a mansion on the hill), he goes to bed with a shotgun in his hands. It is Duvall’s way of indicating that ultra-religious people might strike normal people as dangerous.

If nothing else, “The Apostle” is a virtual actor’s workshop. Duvall becomes the character in a way that I have not seen outside of the best performances of Robert DeNiro or Marlon Brando. Duvall spent time in Texas researching his character and steeping himself in the religious community the film depicts.

Duvall got the idea for the film while working in his first film, the 1962 “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (He plays a reclusive neighbor who protects Gregory Peck’s children from a homicidal racist, despite his reputation as a kind of bogeyman himself). Researching his role, Duvall visited a small town in Arkansas where his character was supposed to live and where there was a small Pentecostal church. In a January 25, 1998 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Duvall recalled, ”So I went there one night and watched this service. I’d never seen anything like it. It had a lady preacher and then a guy got up with a guitar and preached and sang. And I said, ‘Boy, I want to do something with this someday.'”

December 19, 2004

Hotel Rwanda

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:50 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 19, 2004

As drama “Hotel Rwanda” is very good. Politically and historically it has some serious flaws.

It is based on the true story of a Hutu named Paul Rusesabagina -played brilliantly by Don Cheadle who sheltered Tutsis in the swank hotel he managed in Rwanda’s capital. In an extraordinary act of courage reminiscent of Oskar Schindler he repeatedly buys off or cajoles Hutu soldiers who have come to the hotel to kill Tutsis seeking refuge. Unlike Stephen Spielberg’s treatment of Schindler Irish director and screenplay author Terry George does not romanticize Rusesabagina. The hotel manager appears driven by feelings of neighborliness and decency rather than a desire to be a hero. In the early scenes of the film when his Hutu beer wholesaler is revealed with a cache of machetes obviously intended to be used in the coming massacre Rusesabagina remains silent. He only decides to take action when a next door Tutsi neighbor is beaten mercilessly and then dragged off by a uniformed Hutu death squad.

Ultimately however the message of the film is similar to that of “Welcome to Sarajevo” which blamed Western indifference for an alleged genocide against the Bosnian Muslims. Since the Tutsis were black the indifference took on racist aspects. In a key scene Nick Nolte playing a UN soldier tells Cheadle that the Tutsis are doomed because they are the wrong color.

Terry George was clearly influenced by New Yorker reporter Philip Gourevitch who included Paul Rusesabagina’s story in his 1999 “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda”. In an interview with Gourevitch in connection to a PBS documentary on Rwanda we discover that he views the slaughter of Tutsis as having the same logic as the Holocaust:

“What distinguishes Rwanda is a clear programmatic effort to eliminate everybody in the Tutsi minority group because they were Tutsis. The logic was to kill everybody. Not to allow anybody to get away. Not to allow anybody to continue. And the logic as Rwandans call it the genocidal logic was very much akin to that of an ideology very similar to that of the Nazism vis-à-vis the Jews in Europe which is all of them must be gotten rid of to purify in a sense the people.”

To Gourevitch’s credit he also acknowledges the role of European colonialism in fostering enmity against the Tutsi in the interview. His comments are echoed in a scene from the film in the hotel’s bar where a Rwandan journalist blames the Belgians for the unfolding bloodlust. Gourevitch states:

“Rwanda’s population essentially consists of two groups the Hutu majority -roughly 85% the Tutsi minority -roughly 15%. There’s a tiny minority of Pygmies as well. Until the late 19th century which is to say until European colonization Tutsis -the minority represented the aristocratic upper classes; Hutus were the peasant masses. The Europeans brought with them an idea of race science by which they took this traditional structure and made it even more extreme and more polarized into an almost apartheid-like system. And ethnic identity cards were issued and Tutsis were privileged for all things and Hutus were really made into a very oppressed mass.”

What Gourevitch omits -at least in this interview however is the economic crisis that raised this ethnic division to a qualitatively more lethal degree. It is modern *neocolonialism* rather than 19th century colonialism that is to blame for this.

More recently Gourevitch has turned his attention to North Korea which he regards as being under the grip of a “[James] Bond villain.” He also covers the Iraq beat for the increasingly neoconservative New Yorker magazine about which he states “The President cannot afford to lose Iraq.”

Another high-profile commentator on the Rwandan genocide is Samantha Powers who is an associate of Michael Ignatieff at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Basically Ignatieff and Powers position themselves as Wilsonian liberals urging the USA to intervene anywhere in the world where human rights are threatened. Between these Wilsonians and the neoconservatives in Bush’s administration the differences are less about the right of imperialism to make war but the rationale for such wars. With the Harvard liberals you get a bit more angst thrown in with the war whoops.

In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article titled “Bystanders to Genocide” Powers puts forward an analysis that dovetails with Gourevitch’s and Terry George’s:

The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil. U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about “never again” many of them did sit around and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen. In examining how and why the United States failed Rwanda we see that without strong leadership the system will incline toward risk-averse policy choices. We also see that with the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to Rwanda taken off the table early on­and with crises elsewhere in the world unfolding­the slaughter never received the top-level attention it deserved. Domestic political forces that might have pressed for action were absent. And most U.S. officials opposed to American involvement in Rwanda were firmly convinced that they were doing all they could­and most important all they should­in light of competing American interests and a highly circumscribed understanding of what was “possible” for the United States to do.

For an alternative to these sorts of “the West should have done more” arguments we can turn to Mahmood Mamdani the Columbia professor and author of “When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda.” He also wrote an article in the March-April 1996 New Left Review titled “Understanding the Rwandan Massacre” that is unfortunately not online. Fortunately there is a good presentation of Mamdani’s ideas in the December 1996 Socialist Review the theoretical magazine of the British SWP by Charlie Kimber. Drawing from Mamdani’s work and other critical-minded journalists and scholars Kimber writes:

From 1973 to about 1990 Rwanda was relatively peaceful. This had little to do with Habyarimana himself and much to do with the generally stable price of coffee and tin. The economic blizzard of the later 1980s caused havoc. The striped blazer brigade on the London commodity exchange traded Rwanda’s coffee and tin. As they settled the claims of supply and demand matched the purchasing power of the multinationals against the weakness of African countries they were sealing the fate of peasants 6000 miles away.

He has an extensive quote from Gerard Prunier’s “The Rwanda Crisis” which is worth requoting in its entirety:

The political stability of the regime followed almost exactly the curve of coffee and tin prices. For the elite of the regime there were three sources of enrichment: coffee and tea exports briefly tin exports and creaming off foreign aid. Since a fair share of the first two had to be allocated to running the government by 1988 the shrinking sources of revenue left only the third as a viable alternative. There was an increase in competition for access to this very specialised resource. The various gentlemen’s agreements which had existed between the competing political clans started to melt down as the resources shrank and internal power struggles intensified.

Internal battles meant not only further pressure on the Tutsi elite but also more clashes between regional leaders who were Hutu. These battles were projected onto the much bigger screen of the tensions created over a century by colonialism and its aftermath. The countdown to murder had begun.

In 1989 the government budget was cut by 40 percent. The peasantry faced huge increases in water fees health charges school fees etc. Land became scarce as farmers tried to increase their holdings to make up for the fall in raw material prices. The peasantry -both Hutu and Tutsi were on the verge of open rebellion by 1990. The state absorbed more and more of the land which parents hoped to pass on to their children. State tea plantations opened up new sources of foreign exchange but restricted family holdings. The IMF’s structural adjustment programme for Rwanda was imposed in 1990. As usual it meant the removal of food subsidies privatisation and devaluation ­ and job losses.

The World Bank and the IMF took no account of the likely effects of their shock therapy on a country that was ripe for civil war and had a history of massacres.

A second devaluation followed in June 1992. Just as the war began these [economic changes] saw urban living standards cut and a dramatic decline in the standards of health care and education. Inflation accelerated… By 1993 there was acute hunger in much of southern Rwanda.

full: http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj73/kimber.htm

What films like “Welcome to Sarajevo” and “Hotel Rwanda” miss is the fact that West *was* involved in places like Yugoslavia and Rwanda all along. The IMF and the World Bank did not neglect such places at all. They were intimately involved along the line with turning such countries into pressure cookers. If a country like Rwanda had simply been *left alone* to begin with it is doubtful that conditions would have reached the bloody state that they did.

This is something that ideologues like Samantha Powers cannot acknowledge. Despite the fact that there is an element of human rights imperialism in “Hotel Rwanda” this should not detract from the personal story of Paul Rusesabagina. Terry George has made a very good film and Don Cheadle’s performance is top-notch. “Hotel Rwanda” is appearing in theaters all around the USA right now and is well worth seeing as opposed to the meretricious “Welcome to Sarajevo”.

December 18, 2004

The Aviator

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:07 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 18, 2004

Despite Screenwriter John Logan and Director Martin Scorsese’s best intentions, “The Aviator” is very much like the “Spruce Goose” of the film’s climax: a lumbering, ill-conceived mess. Since they apparently didn’t understand the true story of the white elephant seaplane that is represented as a soaring engineering achievement, it should come as no surprise that they would get nearly everything else wrong about Howard Hughes. Not only do they truncate the biography of this paradigm of American capitalism, leaving out the tawdry details of his dealings with the CIA and his various corporate crimes throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s; they also airbrush and prettify his earlier life to the point where it amounts to a lie.

The idea for this biopic came from Leonard DiCaprio, who plays Howard Hughes. Despite having progressive politics, especially on ecology (see http://www.leonardodicaprio.org/), he was unwilling to see Hughes in his proper historical context. DiCaprio was only interested in the man’s speed fixation, his desire for privacy and his psychological quirks. Furthermore, John Logan turns Hughes into a kind of a libertarian hero after the fashion of Ayn Rand.

Despite his willingness to expose all the personal tics and foibles of this very odd subspecies of the American bourgeoisie, it is obvious that Logan and everybody else associated with this project want the audience to cheer for Howard Hughes at the end of this film. We have come a very long way from the days of “Citizen Kane.”

If anything, Scorsese seems intent on making the same kind of film that another cutting-edge Italian-American director made a while back. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1998 “Tucker” is a biopic of Preston Tucker, an auto manufacturer whose visionary plans for a car with safety belts and other features unheard of in Detroit at the time were shot down by hidebound, reactionary enemies in the business class. At the time, critic Roger Ebert said that you get no sense of what made Tucker tick. He, like Scorsese’s Howard Hughes, is seen from the outside. Ebert also said that it was hard to avoid the impression that Coppola saw himself in Preston Tucker, who was also a kind of genius thwarted by lesser mortals.

With Howard Hughes, the parallels are even more obvious since his career began as a film-maker. Referring to Hughes’s “Hell’s Angels,” a film about WWI aviators, Scorsese told the Telegraph: “He was a cocky guy and he bucked the system in terms of independent film…” In other words, he was a predecessor.

“The Aviator” begins with the making of this film. It is a fairly accurate in terms of showing the young Howard Hughes’s overweening ambitions to make the ultimate film about air war. He is seen as the ultimate risk-taker who proves his detractors wrong, especially Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), who he had hired to run Hughes Tool. Dietrich warns him that mounting expenses might bankrupt the company his father founded and which was the source of his unlimited wealth. Scorsese depicts the film’s premiere as a triumph of the plucky young producer/director. What the film covers up is the fact that the film actually lost $1.5 million, an immense sum in 1930.

Nor does the film dramatize the death of mechanic Phil Jones, who was strapped to a spinning plane and instructed to operate smoke pots to give the impression of a burning plane. Pilots working in the film warned that this was too dangerous. They were correct. Jones missed a cue to parachute from the spinning plane and fell to his death in a plowed field. Hughes was all to willing to take risks, but with other peoples’ expense apparently.

(The account of Jones’s death and other factual corrections in this review are drawn from Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele’s “Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness.” Bartlett and Steele might also be known to you as the authors of “America: What Went Wrong” and other critiques of American society. In other words, they are the perfect biographers for a subject like Howard Hughes.)

True to biopic traditions, “The Aviator” dwells on Hughes’s romances with movie stars like Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. Hepburn is played by Cate Blanchett in one of the most ill-conceived performances in recent film history. Anybody who has seen Hepburn in film will be startled by Blanchett’s braying and repellent version of the actress, which evokes Martin Short’s impersonation of her on the old Saturday Night Live more than anything else.

It serves to establish a contrast between the crude but honest Hughes character and the liberal phonies in Hollywood he must have had to put up with.

In a pivotal scene, Hughes is invited out to the Connecticut estate of Hepburn’s blueblood, liberal parents. At a dinner party there, they appear as repulsive as the Sean Penn marionette in this year’s “Team America.” Speaking down to Hughes, they spout slogan after slogan about the downtrodden poor. Before leaving in a huff, he tells them that they can’t know anything about money because they were born into it. He, on the other hand, would have ostensibly worked for every penny he ever made. Since Howard Hughes was an heir to his father’s fortune, this confrontation does not quite ring true.

All in all, the dialog between Hughes and Hepburn’s family is a lost opportunity. A more gifted screenwriter would have drawn a more nuanced contrast, but since Logan’s past work includes “The Gladiator” and “The Last Samurai,” such hopes would be misplaced. Ultimately the romance between the two characters does not come alive, because we really don’t know who Hughes is. Logan is content to paint a rather opaque figure, who only is energized and demonstrative when behind the steering wheel of an airplane.

The dramatic heart of the movie involves a confrontation between Hughes and Maine Senator Owen Brewster, who was conducting an investigation into Hughes Aircraft and war profiteering in 1947. Brewster, played by Alan Alda, serves as the film’s villain. We discover that Brewer’s main motivation is to thwart Hughes’s ambition to fly his TWA airliners to Europe in order to compete with Pan American airlines. Juan Trippe, Pan-Am’s president, is played by Alec Baldwin as a smooth-talking, aristocratic Yankee against the rough-hewn but honest Howard Hughes. Trippe has made substantial campaign contributions to Brewster in an effort to line up his support against any challenges to Pan Am’s monopolistic ambitions.

One has to wonder about the casting of Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin in these roles. Both are high-profile liberals in Hollywood. I doubt that Scorsese, Logan and DiCaprio sat down and made casting decisions based on this criterion, but nevertheless it serves the political subtext of the film willy-nilly. That subtext entails the clash of the risk-taking entrepreneur and the meddling forces of big government.

This is an absurd construction since Howard Hughes’s rise to the richest man in the world in 1966 was marked all along the line by exactly the same kinds of influence-peddling. He was the ultimate insider who lavished huge campaign contributions on the likes of Richard Nixon in exchange for favors for his various corporations. No wonder the makers of “The Aviator” decided to end their story in the late 1940s. The truth about Howard Hughes’s later career was far too inconvenient.

The film concludes with DiCaprio at the helm of the Hercules, an immense wooden seaplane that was intended to carry war material to Europe during the war, hence evading submarine attacks. This supposedly vindicated Howard Hughes, whose idea for such a huge plane was derided by men with limited imaginations.

What the film fails to establish is that the idea for the Hercules (leaving aside its ultimate viability) came from ship-builder Henry Kaiser rather than Hughes. In 1942, Kaiser was dismayed that hundreds of ships were being sunk in the Atlantic by German submarines. In the summer of that year, he came up with a solution. A fleet of giant flying boats would guarantee the safe delivery of men and supplies to Europe. Long before Hughes entered the picture, newspapers were hailing the prospects of Kaiser’s flying boats. The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to “Flying Freighters–The Ship of the Future Will Fly Over the Ocean if the Nation Accepts Henry Kaiser’s Suggestion.”

When Kaiser approached Hughes in August of 1942 with the idea, he discovered the younger man to be frail and exhausted. Hughes told the effusive Kaiser, “I am very tired. I haven’t had any sleep… Besides, you’re crazy.” After a couple of days, Kaiser was able to cajole Hughes into accepting his proposal. Perhaps Scorsese should have made a movie about Henry J. Kaiser instead.

Kaiser’s trust in Howard Hughes was misplaced. In 1942, Hughes Aircraft was little more than a boutique for bringing one or another of its president’s hobbyhorses to fruition, but not under the kinds of pressure other companies faced–especially during wartime. It employed only a few hundred people and was run by cronies of Howard Hughes. Neil S. McCarthy, who was in charge of the company, was a Hollywood lawyer and horse-racing enthusiast, who had represented Hughes in past dealings in the film industry. He knew nothing about aviation. It is no wonder that the Hercules only flew two years after the war was over, with men like this in charge. Hughes himself was hardly to be seen most days, preferring to spend his time in Las Vegas with showgirls.

(Hughes Aircraft eventually turned into a powerhouse by supplying high-technology communications and missiles to the Air Force in the 1950s. At the time, the company was under the leadership of much more qualified people. Hughes had evidently learned from his mistakes.)

If the creators of the “The Aviator” had really immersed themselves in Howard Hughes’s biography, it is surprising that they did not abandon this project at the outset, especially Martin Scorsese who is supposedly fiercely committed to the independence of film-making.

In the early 1950s, Hughes had gotten involved in the film industry once again. As head of RKO, he was turning out pure schlock like his earlier work. Yet despite the inferior quality of films like the 1943 “The Outlaw,” he would appear at first blush to be strongly protective of artistic freedom. A key scene in “The Aviators” depicts Hughes standing up to the censors over his right to show Jane Russell’s cleavage in this forgettable film.

Unfortunately, Hughes did not believe that leftists should enjoy the same kinds of freedoms. In 1951, just as the witch-hunt was gathering steam, Hughes fired Paul Jarrico who was hired to write the screenplay for “The Las Vegas Story,” an RKO film. Jarrico had been subpoenaed by HUAC to testify about Communist subversion in Hollywood. Bill Gay, one of many Mormons hired by Hughes to look after his affairs, said, “He felt that communism versus free enterprise was such an important issue in our time. [It was] one of the few issues in his life he felt that strongly about.” (This is cited in Barlett and Steele.)

Not satisfied with firing Jarrico, Hughes next went after Charlie Chaplin. In 1953, RKO decided that they would ban “Limelight” after HUAC and the American Legion put pressure on movie theaters. In the case of RKO, this was like trying to break down a wide-open door.

Shortly after his triumph in ensuring a smaller audience for Chaplin’s first movie in 5 years, Hughes and other red-baiters ganged up on “Salt of the Earth,” a movie about New Mexico strikers made by Jarrico, Herbert J. Biberman and other blacklistees. In a letter to Representative Donald Jackson, Hughes solidarized himself with the film’s banning and suggested a check-list for weeding out such subversive films in the future:

“[to] prevent this motion picture from being completed and spread all over the world as a representative product of the United States, then the industry . . . needs only to do the following:

“Be alert to the situation.

“Investigate thoroughly each applicant for the use of services or equipment.

“Refuse to assist the Bibermans and Jarricos in the making of this picture.

“Be on guard against work submitted by dummy corporations or third parties.

“Appeal to the Congress and the State Department to act immediately to prevent the export of this film to Mexico or anywhere else.”

It is singularly disappointing that people like Martin Scorsese would commemorate such an enemy of freedom in the name of freedom.

December 17, 2004

The Apprentice

Filed under: Trump — louisproyect @ 4:23 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 17, 2004

Last night I watched the special 3 hour conclusion to this season’s “The Apprentice,” a “reality” show that pits aggressive, young MBA types against each other for a job with Donald Trump. Each week the show concludes with the porcine Trump telling the losers of that episode: “You’re fired.” The survivors compete in the following week’s contest. It will come as no surprise that this show has parallels with the hit show “Survivor,” in which similar contests are mounted on remote desert islands or the Australian outback, etc.. The ex-paratrooper Mark Burnett produced both shows.

During a commercial break, there were ads for another NBC show called “The Biggest Loser,” where obese people compete with each other in a weight-losing contest. In the final moments of last night’s “The Apprentice,” another Burnett production scheduled for next season was hyped. It will feature amateur boxers competing with each other. It is a rip-off of a show that has already been aired on Rupert Murdoch’s network.

For the past five years or so, network television has been awash with such competition type shows. Vocalists compete on “The American Idol.” Women compete with each other to land a job as a professional model or to marry (or bed) some hunk.

But “The Apprentice” really gets to the heart of the matter. If all these shows are about survival of the fittest, nothing can top sitting in front of Donald Trump and explaining why he should hire you rather than the person sitting opposite you. While channel-surfing last week, I stumbled across this demeaning ritual that occurs regularly in the final moments of the show. Two women, one a finalist from last night’s show and the other a loser, were shouting over each other about why Trump should pick her. Their rival was “incompetent” and they were “winners” in everything they did, from high school debates to graduating in the top five percent at Harvard Law School. It was truly repellent but fascinating stuff.

Years ago Peter Camejo used to give a recruitment speech to young people coming around our movement. He was very good at explaining the irrationality of our economic system. For example, in a world of socialist plenty, nobody would be arrested for stealing steaks from a supermarket when they might cost pennies. They would instead be referred to a psychiatrist. (This was before the broader movement had absorbed the lessons of environmentalism.) He also made a point that always hit home with me. He said that the capitalist work-world was filled with lies, starting with the job interview. When you were asked why you wanted a job with the First National Bank, you were trained to give the answers that they expected, like “You make an outstanding product” or “I have wanted to work for a bank since I was in the cradle.” You could never be honest and say, “I have to pay my rent, buy food and go to the movies. Where else am I going to get money for these things?”

“The Apprentice” is built on a fundamental lie, that ordinary people really have their heart set on working for somebody like Donald Trump or Michael Bloomberg or Ace Greenberg, the Bear-Stearns CEO who is featured heavily on “The Apprentice”. All ordinary people care about is a decent, well-paying job that does not involve exposing themselves to industrial accidents or toxins. The people on “The Apprentice” are actually extraordinary. They are a highly-motivated elite that is totally committed to the ethos of the American corporation. They are not just MBA’s, but gung-ho MBA’s.

Kelly Perdew, last night’s winner, fully expressed this tendency. On his website (kellyperdew.com), he babbles, “My main objective here is to bring together passionate and optimistic individuals and corporations to exchange ideas and explore opportunities to work with me and my team.” We also learn that Perdew is a West Point graduate with an MBA and a law degree as well. In the army, he was a military intelligence officer. This combination of skills would prepare one to rise to the top of Donald Trump’s organization and to supervise the torture of Iraqi prisoners as well, no doubt. On the home page of his website, he quotes Winston Churchill: “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” In the biography section, he includes “If,” a Rudyard Kipling poem, under the heading “Inspiration.” The poem concludes with the lines:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
with 60 seconds worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
and which is more, you’ll be a man, my son.

“Yours is the earth” indeed. Perdew is the purified essence of capitalist ambition. At one time Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling personified these ambitions. History, of course, has moved on. Now they are epitomized by George W. Bush and Mark Burnett. Farce follows tragedy.

If American capitalism is supposed to be based on the survival of the fittest, Donald Trump would be the last person to symbolize such a system. Only five months ago, he was forced to declare bankruptcy:

Donald Trump’s casino businesses, which have failed to share in his highly publicized successes in other realms in recent years, are being restructured under a bankruptcy protection plan that would strip Trump of his majority stake.

The Donald, as the mogul is known, has achieved renewed celebrity through the hit reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” Each week, Trump eliminates one contestant from a team that fails to make as much money as a competing team.

His signature statement on the show, “You’re fired,” became a national catch phrase. The new attention also put him back on the best-seller list this spring with “Trump: How to Get Rich.”

Under the plan, announced late Monday, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts plans to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy next month, emerging within a year.

Full: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/22/national/main656922.shtml

It seems that if Trump is a success at anything, it is at surviving bankruptcy. In 1992, he also dodged a bullet.

The Washington Post, November 29, 1992, Sunday, Final Edition
Trump Went Broke, but Stayed on Top; Fearing a Bankruptcy Quagmire, Lenders Made Deals With Developer

By David S. Hilzenrath, Michelle Singletary, Washington Post Staff Writers

One day in 1990, as Donald Trump tells it, he and model Marla Maples were strolling along New York’s Fifth Avenue when they passed a beggar.

“You see that man? Right now he’s worth $ 900 million more than me. … Right now I’m worth minus $ 900 million,” Trump told Maples.

After a decade of profligate borrowing, Trump lacked the cash to make his loan payments. Although he owned hotels, skyscrapers, casinos and an airline, his debts exceeded the value of his properties by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Trump’s lenders could have forced him into personal bankruptcy and stripped him of almost everything. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, the bankers and investors to whom Trump owed money made a series of deals that left him wealthy. They let him keep some properties and took control of others, and they reduced Trump’s personal debt by about $ 750 million, more than four-fifths of the total.

Trump’s other main strength is garnering publicity. As a constant item in the gossip columns and a frequent guest on the Don Imus or Howard Stern shock jock shows, he is always in the public eye. The NBC show is simply another brick in the PR edifice.

In 1989, Trump put himself in the spotlight in the aftermath of the Central Park “wilding” incident in which a gang of Black and Latin youths allegedly beat and raped an investment banker out on a jog in Central Park. If anything, she was exactly the sort of person who might have shown up as a contestant on “The Apprentice.” Trump took out full-page ads in the NY Times and other papers calling for a return of the death penalty. Trump said in the ad, ”I want to hate these murderers,” who were nothing but “wild criminals . . . dispensing their own brand of twisted hatred.” In 2002, their convictions were overturned when the true perpetrator, who had no connection to the youths, confessed to the crime.

Trump made a brief bid as a Republican presidential candidate in 1999. On “Meet the Press,” he rattled a saber at North Korea and accused the Europeans of taking advantage of the USA. He was also a big supporter of Rudy Giuliani, who was elected mayor of NYC after promising to get tough with criminals like the Central Park “wilding” gang. This year Trump doled money out in equal amounts to the Kerry and Bush campaigns.

In a confused way, the 1960s counter-culture represented a breach with the sort of competitive mentality symbolized by Trump and the battery of TV shows that pit one human being against each other. With the 1980s, such values began to recede. Perhaps, if the growing economic crisis and the war in Iraq give birth to a new movement that includes the working class, we will begin to see a cultural challenge to these values once again. One thing is obvious. That culture will certainly be richer and more interesting than that of the dominant culture.

December 16, 2004

A Tale of Two Sisters

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:47 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on December 16, 2004

Produced in South Korea, “A Tale of Two Sisters” is the latest and most artistically realized horror film to come out of East Asia in the genre of “Ringu” and “Ju-On,” which were made in Japan. These sorts of films rely more on mood and psychological insight than on flashy special effects. It also shares with them a focus on the dysfunctional family and child abuse.

The plot of “A Tale of Two Sisters” evokes classic Grimm fairy tales of children being victimized by a cruel elder. In this case, we are dealing with two teenaged sisters who have returned from an extended hospital stay to the country estate of their wealthy physician father and his sadistic new wife. Their mother has died under mysterious circumstances. It is also not clear whether the sisters’ ailments were physical or mental.

Under director Kim Jee-Woon’s sure hands, the film grows creepier by the minute. Although the lavish home has beautiful gardens and spacious, well-furnished rooms, there is something off about them from the start–especially the ornate floral wallpaper that begins to almost pulsate when the camera hones in on it. The wallpaper evokes toxicity and danger, not comfort and reassurance. Eventually it becomes along with the house itself a kind of actor in this Gothic tale, a Korean version of the house described by Edgar Allen Poe in “Fall of the House of Usher”:

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was –but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.”

It would seem that Kim Jee-Woon has a flair for macabre tales set in country estates. His 1998 “The Quiet Family” is a black comedy about a family that moves to the country to run a bed and breakfast. When guests feel inspired one after one to commit suicide in the house, the family works overtime to conceal the bodies. Besides sharing a creepy house with “A Tale of Two Sisters,” the two films share a father figure who seems impervious to everything around them. In “Two Sisters,” the father is blissfully unaware of the strange goings on in his house. In “The Quiet Family,” the father rises from the dinner table, walks off screen, and proceeds to kick the family dog, before returning to the table to resume eating as nothing has happened. In a voice-over, his daughter explains that the tension of disposing of all the corpses has gotten to him.

It is not clear whether the director’s avoidance of special effects is driven by a tight budget or by style. Whatever the case, “A Tale of Two Sisters” is far more expert in the tools that it works with than the typically bloated Hollywood horror film. This is especially true with respect to the sound effects, which are unlike any I have encountered in any other film. The house is alive with bizarre night sounds coming from within its innards that drive the two sisters over the edge, along with everything else in this truly haunted house.

“A Tale of Two Sisters” has the same kind of ambiguity as Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw.” Even in the final scenes, we are never quite sure whether the gruesome events taking place are in the children’s minds or actually taking place. In the conventional Hollywood horror movie, from Psycho to Halloween, there is always a psychiatrist to explain the events of the film at the conclusion, neatly tying a string around the package. In “A Tale of Two Sisters,” we leave the theater unsure of what happened. The characters are haunted and so are we.

Kim Jee-Woon was clearly inspired by “Ringu,” the Japanese flick that was remade in the USA as “The Ring.” Koji Suzuki, the author of the novel that the film was based on, is known as the Stephen King of Japan. His novels and the East Asian horror films he has inspired share King’s preoccupation with the hidden menace of everyday objects. In “Ringu,” the telephone and the VCR become as threatening as a meat cleaver. In “A Tale of Two Sisters,” the wallpaper threatens to detach itself from the wall and attack the audience crouched in their seats.

All of these works also share a sense that the nuclear family is falling apart at the seams. For the better part of two decades, Japan and South Korea were seen as embodying all of the traditional values of middle-class life. With growing economic insecurity, novelists and film directors are bound to reflect anxiety about the future.

In an interview, Kim-Jee Woon answered the question about the relationship of his movies to reality in the following manner:

“I think a movie is at the borderline between the reality and some other world. For me, expressing the real world with the real language is not very fun. But, expressing the real world with fantastic, film language is more fun. I think that film is a door from the real world to the other world, to the other side…And ultimately, film is about digging from another world into what’s going on in the reality.”

“A Tale of Two Sisters” opens in NYC at Cinema Village on December 17th. Highly recommended.

December 10, 2004

Homeless Hawks

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:42 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on December 10, 2004

Fifty years ago, the use of DDT brought birds such as the eagle, the falcon and the hawk to the brink of extinction. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was mostly responsible for a ban on the substance and the re-emergence of such birds across the country, including the Greater New York area.

There are falcons in the spires of St. John of the Divine, an immense Gothic cathedral not 10 blocks from where I work and where leftists have been mourned over the years, including Sandinista Nicaragua’s Nora Astorga. They also have nests in the nooks and crannies of the George Washington Bridge.

But the most magnificent bird is the red-tailed hawk that I saw for the first time in Central Park on New Years Day, 1997. A group of people had gathered under a tree not five blocks from the east side entrance to the park on 90th St. and 5th Ave. In the surrounding trees, crows were raising hell. They were alarmed at the sight of the hawk near the top of the tree, which clutched a live rat in its talons. After 10 minutes or so, it flew off with its bounty. It was a huge and impressive bird. One can understand why American Indians would revere it.

Apparently this was the bird that had built a nest at the top of 927 Fifth Avenue, near 74th Street. Mary Tyler Moore, the TV comedy star of the 1970s, lives there and Woody Allen lives across the street. Last week, the nest was torn down because building occupants complained about the rat carcasses that would occasionally show up on the sidewalk below the building. Moore told the NY Times that ”I am so outraged that they would do this without so much as a by your leave.” Woody Allen has not been heard from, though he was omnipresent in a landmarks preservation drive to prevent a high-rise from going up on 92nd Street, where he has a townhouse. He didn’t want his view blocked apparently. One would hope that he would deploy the same kind of activism on behalf of one of the city’s wildlife treasures.

It is hard for me to express the feelings of disgust I have for the denizens of 927 Fifth Avenue responsible for this cruel, insensitive and ultimately barbaric act. A website devoted to restoring the nest can be found at: http://www.palemale.com/. It has some wonderful pictures of the bird, his mate and their offspring.

The Times reported that while red-tailed hawks are protected under the federal Migratory Species Treaty, the law does not prohibit removal of an “inactive” nest — one containing no chicks, eggs or nestlings. This according to Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesmen for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who okayed the removal of the nest. I can’t say that this surprises me that much. The Bush administration, like the Reagan administration before it, has a knack for hiring people who are hostile to the aims of the government agencies they supervise.

This brutal act obviously resonates with other things going on in the world involving human beings. One cannot but think of the thousands of New Yorkers who are homeless now, victims of the same cruel economic forces ultimately under the control of the kinds of people who destroyed the nest. We are also inevitably reminded of Palestinians who lose their homes as an act of collective punishment wrought by the Zionist state.

In the final analysis, the mean-spiritedness behind this act is cut from the same cloth that is threatening biodiversity all across the planet. The people who would tear down a nest in order to have a spotless sidewalk are from the same class that is condemning the flora and fauna of rainforests to rapid extinction. Working people have to figure out a way to connect our concerns with that of nature as a whole. The enemy of nature is also the enemy of working people.

In the early stages of capitalist development in the USA, the cities were much more connected with nature. Although some of this was obviously a health hazard, there were ways in which nature and humanity were intertwined in a positive way.

In Ted Steinberg’s “Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History,” we learn:

Horses generated power for transportation (and manufacturing too), but they also produced staggering amounts of manure, somewhere between 15 and 30 pounds per animal every day. In Milwaukee, this translated daily into 133 tons of horse droppings. In 1900, one health officer in Rochester, New York (apparently with nothing better to do), calculated that the city’s 15,000 horses contributed enough dung each year to completely cover an acre to a height of 175 feet. Worse still, the stinking piles bred countless numbers of flies, which harbored disease, including typhoid fever. Then there was the dust to contend with. Horse turds dried up in the heat, only to be pulverized by the creatures themselves as their hoofs made contact with the pavement. Ground horse excrement was the nineteenth-century equivalent of auto pollution-and was just as irritating to people’s respiratory systems.

The problems created by horse dung would have been even worse were it not for an ingenious ecological move on the part of farmers living on the outskirts of cities. They purchased the horse manure and used it to fertilize their hay and vegetable crops. The hay then went to feed the urban horse population and the vegetables to enhance the dinner tables of the city’s better-off residents. As a truck farmer from New Jersey explained: “In our large commercial and manufacturing cities where wealth has concentrated, and where abound families who live regardless of expenditures, fabulous prices are freely paid for vegetables and fruits to please the palate or adorn the table.” By the mid-nineteenth century, a reciprocal system, with manure passing one way and vegetables and hay the other, had grown up in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston.

New Yorkers perfected the system. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 propelled the city’s rise to commercial dominance and spurred farmers near the waterway to give up grain production in favor of potatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, onions, and sweet corn, all of which commanded good prices in the city’s market. In 1879, Brooklyn and Queens, New York, now the very essence of urbanity, even led the nation in market gardening. Brooklyn was described by one source as an “immense garden” serving the “vast and increasing demand of the city of New York for vegetables and fruits of a perishable nature.”

The soil in Brooklyn and Queens is shallow, limiting the ability of roots to spread, and is not particularly adapted to storing moisture. Normally a farmer would need to keep plenty of hay on hand to feed the livestock that produced the soil-fortifying manure. But with Manhattan dairies and stables located nearby, it made economic sense for farmers to sell their hay and purchase horse manure in return. Manure from all over the New York City area formed the ecological lifeblood of Brooklyn and Queens farming. Brooklynites, one newspaper noted, “are, no doubt, glad to get rid of their filth (and the Board of Health will compel them to do so) [but] our farmers are glad to obtain means with which to enrich their lands, and to pay a fair price for such materials.” Horse manure was so critical to farming that one King’s County landowner even made a provision in his will that his son receive “all manure on the farm at the time of my decease.”

Something like this will have to be reintroduced under communism. In seeking to overcome the “metabolic rift” between town and countryside identified by Karl Marx (under the influence of soil chemist Justus von Liebig), we should also make a place for the great raptors such as the red-tailed hawk, who are as important to civilization as any painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

December 9, 2004


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on December 9, 2004

Zhang Yimou is one of China’s most talented film directors. He has also run afoul of the authorities over the years for making films that pushed the envelope of what was politically acceptable. In 1990, “Ju Dou” was banned because it represented a woman committing adultery against an oppressive husband. The 1999 “Not One Less” depicts a teenaged schoolteacher locked in struggle with government bureaucrats over funding for her rural school. Perhaps the censors approved this film because of its happy ending, when the bureaucrats are won over by the plucky youth.

Nowadays Zhang is making films that are a retreat from the earlier films. Dispensing entirely with themes that challenge the status quo, “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” seem very much influenced by Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” My comments here are directed toward “Hero,” which I saw recently in DVD.

During the 1980s and 90s Hong Kong studios churned out film after film starring Jet Li or Jackie Chan as itinerant swordsman standing up to evil. These films were marketed to a mass audience and made no pretenses to high art. They also relied on combat scenes that relied strictly on the acrobatic and martial arts skills of the stars. Unfortunately, first Ang Lee and now Zhang Yimou decided to use the sort of computer-assisted special effects that were found in the Matrix films where characters defy the laws of gravity routinely.

In “Hero,” the star Jet Li floats through the air at the drop of a hat. These elaborately choreographed sword fights remind one of the levitated figures in a Chagall painting. Since they are so obviously disconnected from physical reality, they tend to convey as much danger as a Chagall painting.

Zhang seems much more interested in visual effects than anything in this elaborate costume drama. Armored soldiers march in formation as if on stage. At the end of the film, they demand the execution of Jet Li in unison. The effect is positively operatic. Zhang does have a demonstrated affinity for opera. In 1997 he directed the Puccini opera “Turandot” in Florence, Italy with Zubin Mehta serving as conductor. In 1998, he and Mehta once again collaborated on a re-staging of the opera in Beijing. “Turandot,” of course, is an opera that revolves around vast numbers of Chinese imperial attendants and soldiers marching in and off stage to great effect.

The story itself revolves around the plot of Jet Li and his associates to assassinate the King of Qin, who has decided to subjugate the five other kingdoms in ancient China in order to create a unified state and a unified language. The assassins all come from a kingdom that has suffered from his assaults. Ultimately, “Hero” becomes a Rashomon-type tale in which the King of Qin and his enemies present contrasting accounts of both their involvement and his culpability. I don’t think I am giving away anything when I say that the King is ultimately vindicated as a national unifier in the mold of Stalin or Mao. One must conclude that Chinese film-makers operate under tremendous constraints.

December 8, 2004

Shattered Glass

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:58 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on December 8, 2004

Although I missed the first 10 or 15 minutes or so, I have no problem recommending “Shattered Glass,” a film I stumbled across on the always rewarding HBO network. This is a film based on a true story. Stephen Glass was a writer at the centrist New Republic magazine who was nailed by Forbes Magazine’s online edition in 1998 for making up a story about a teenaged hacker being hired as a security expert by the Silicon Valley company whose site he had hacked. Although such things were going on the world in 1998, Glass’s story was fabricated out of whole cloth. He was the Jayson Blair of 1998.

This story and everything else that Glass wrote is still online at Lexis-Nexis. From time to time, Marxmailers will ask me to remove an incriminating post from the archives. Unlike me, Lexis-Nexis has no need to keep the likes of The New Republic happy, which will have egg on its face for all eternity. The story that got Glass fired would strain a normal person’s credulity, but then again New Republic readers are not very normal:

The New Republic, May 18, 1998
Hack Heaven
By Stephen Glass

Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, is throwing a tantrum. “I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Man comic book number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy, and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!” Over and over again, the boy, who is wearing a frayed Cal Ripken Jr. t-shirt, is shouting his demands. Across the table, executives from a California software firm called Jukt Micronics are listening–and trying ever so delicately to oblige. “Excuse me, sir,” one of the suits says, tentatively, to the pimply teenager. “Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting you, sir. We can arrange more money for you. Then, you can buy the comic book, and then, when you’re of more, say, appropriate age, you can buy the car and pornographic magazines on your own.”

The Forbes article is still online:

Lies, damn lies and fiction Adam L. Penenberg, 05.11.98, 12:00 AM ET

It’s tough proving a negative. It is even tougher proving that something or someone does not exist.

That was the challenge after The New Republic story, “Hack Heaven,” which appeared in the May 18 issue, proved to be unverifiable. At first it appeared that Forbes Digital had been scooped by a weekly political publication.

“Hack Heaven” detailed the exploits of Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who broke through the online security system of a “big-time software firm” called Jukt Micronics. Once inside, the cheeky youth posted every employee’s salary on the company’s web site alongside a bunch of nudie pictures, each bearing the caption “THE BIG BAD BIONIC BOY HAS BEEN HERE BABY.”

But instead of calling in the Feds, Jukt executives, according to The New Republic, decided to hire the teenage hacker, who had obtained the services of an agent, Joe Hiert, described as a “super-agent to super-nerds.” The magazine also claimed that such deals have thwarted efforts to prosecute hackers and that law enforcement officials in Nevada got so desperate that they ran radio advertisements: “Would you hire a shoplifter to watch the cash register? Please don’t deal with hackers.”

A frightening story. But not true.

The article was a complete and utter hoax perpetrated by one of the magazine’s own associate editors, 25-year-old Stephen Glass.

Our first step was to plug Jukt Micronics into a bunch of search engines. We found no web site, odd for a “big-time software firm.” Our next step was to contact the Software Publishers Association of America. Nothing. Next on our list was the California Franchise Tax Board. An official from the Tax Board confirmed that Jukt Micronics had never paid any taxes. Further investigations revealed that Jukt Micronics, if it existed at all, was not listed under any of California’s 15 area codes. Sarah Gilmer from the office of the California Secretary of State said there was no record of the company, “as a corporation, a limited liability or limited partnership.”

A search of Lexis-Nexis’ extensive database turned up only one reference to Jukt Micronics: Glass’s New Republic story.

full: http://www.forbes.com/1998/05/11/otw3.html

Glass is played by Hayden Christensen as a needy, whining, wunderkind who desperately seeks approval from his editors. When the film starts, that editor is Michael Kelly who is depicted as a man of principle, fired for simply refusing to kowtow to owner Morty Peretz, the insufferable Democratic Party DLC’er and Zionist. Kelly is played by Hank Azaria, who has a regular gig as the voice of Apu the Kwik-E-Mart owner and Police Chief Wiggum on “The Simpsons”.

Kelley is replaced by Charles “Chuck” Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), who is represented as a Morty Peretz sycophant at the start of the film. Gradually, he serves as a kind of hero uncovering Glass’s lies shred by shred–with the prompting of Forbes Magazine, of course. Adam L. Penenberg is played by Steve Zahn.

The film entertains in a sort of morbid way, giving you an experience not unlike watching a highway accident.

Glass is a sniveling creep and a typical Ivy League hustler who gets high-paying jobs at a place like New Republic or the Washington Post for knowing whose ass to kiss. The film does not mention this, but Glass’s first job was with the neoconservative Heritage Foundation, where he first sharpened his skills as rightwing writer. The film pays scant attention to the politics of the New Republic, but Glass was an avid purveyor of the sort of neoliberal poison found there. Leaving aside their differences on abortion, etc., the Heritage Foundation and the New Republic (like Bush and Kerry) agree on practically everything else of economic importance.

Here’s a typical Stephen Glass screed on social security. One imagines that Nancy “Let’s put everything on the table” Pelosi must have absorbed the lessons of this article well:

The New Republic, January 27, 1997
Holy Trinity
By Stephen Glass

The gospel of Saints Paul, Warren and Pete.

Susan is an 80-year-old widow. She had hip surgery five years ago, and since then she has spent most of her time indoors. Until two years ago, she had never shown much interest in politics and government. She subscribed to The Chicago Tribune to read Ann Landers and the “Tempo” section. She had voted for president only once, in 1960; she can’t remember if she picked Kennedy or Nixon. Each morning, she woke up early, spent most of her day watching soap operas and talking to her three cats–Larry, Moe and Curley. Each night, after cleaning the dishes, she read romance novels in bed until she fell asleep. But on March 1, 1994, all that changed. Intrigued that ” Larry King Live” was promising to talk about the British royal family’s new mail-order catalog, Susan decided to stay awake past 8 p.m. “But Larry took forever to get to Prince Michael,” she recalls. “Beforehand, he had Paul Tsongas and Warren Rudman talking about their group, the Concord Coalition. All of a sudden I saw what was happening. Both parties working together. It must be on target. These men were going to save my children.”

Susan became, at once, a convert, a deficit-hawk of unmatched zeal. She has written, by her own estimate, more than 900 letters to congressmen asking for Social Security and other entitlements to be curtailed. In her wallet next to photos of her grandchildren, she has a picture of Warren Rudman. She can tell you what the deficit will be at noon on all major holidays. She even renamed her cats: Paul, Warren and Pete (the last one named after Pete Peterson, the Concord Coalition’s president). What does she do when she’s bored? She tries to convert others. “I trick my friends into giving me the phone lists of their senior citizen homes and then I call everyone on the list,” she says. (She adds a request that her last name not be used so she doesn’t lose these friends.)

We can assume that there was no such person as Susan, although to be sure Warren Rudman did exist.

Michael Kelly died last year in Iraq, when his Humvee accidentally overturned into a ditch. Although he is depicted as a saintly figure in “Shattered Glass,” in life he was a typical flatterer of the national security state.

Chuck Lane now writes about legal affairs for the Washington Post. After Jack Kelley, the virulently rightwing reporter for USA Today, was caught up in Stephen Glass type fabrications, Lane wrote a piece for the Washington Post trying to explain why such things happen:

When the first indications of Kelley’s fabrications emerged last fall, the reaction of many at USA Today was to accept his claim that he was being singled out for unjust punishment. When I started investigating Glass in response to a call from Forbes Digital Tool, a now-defunct online magazine that had found it impossible to verify one of Glass’s stories, I didn’t know exactly what I was dealing with. The Forbes journalists thought that, perhaps, Glass had simply swallowed phony information supplied to him by devious sources. Meanwhile, Glass was circulating among the New Republic’s staff, exploiting the due process that he was being given, spreading the lie that he was being persecuted.

Thus does the charming sociopath, through his instinctive grasp of human motivations and how to manipulate them, build up an illegitimate fund of political capital, then draw on it in extremis. For the charmer, there are no human beings in the world — only marks. We thought Glass was interested in our personal lives, or our struggles with work, and we thought it was because he cared. Actually, it was all about sizing us up and searching for vulnerabilities. What we saw as concern was actually contempt.

Of course, what Lane does not address is the other kind of lie that can be found routinely at the New Republic, the Washington Post and the New York Times and for which nobody will ever be fired. I speak here of the lies surrounding US foreign policy, which have little to do with whether characters like “Ian Restil” or “Susan” exist. These are the Orwellian lies in which Grenada or Nicaragua becomes a threat to the national security of the USA. The New Republic, the Washington Post and the NY Times all happily joined in together to spread these Pinocchio type tales, but nobody ever got fired. Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass will never have jobs as reporters again, but Judith Miller certainly will.

December 7, 2004

Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:51 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on December 7, 2004

Last night the City of New York cable station aired a documentary titled “Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma” as part of an ongoing celebration of 350 years of Jewish presence in the USA.

Information on this ongoing series is at: http://www.cuny.tv/series/jewish350/index.lasso

The documentary focused on an aspect of Jewish life that I’ve written about here in the past, namely the effort to get back to the land as farmers in an effort to mitigate the “Jewish problem.” In the 19th century Jewish concentration in urban areas as shopkeepers and light manufacturing workers was seen as an obstacle to further development as a people. Colonies were set up around the USA in which Jews were encouraged to become farmers. Zionism merely represents the most intense and most pernicious form of this experiment. In the USA, such colonies were harmless.

The Jewish farming initiatives in my own county in upstate NY are documented in “Jewish Farmers of the Catskills: A Century of Survival” by Abraham D. Lavender, and Clarence B. Steinberg. I heard Steinberg speak at a conference on the Catskills several years ago. I reported then:

On Sunday afternoon, I heard a truly fascinating presentation on Jewish farmers in Sullivan County. The speaker was Clarence Steinberg, who co-authored “Jewish Farmers of the Catskills” with Abraham Lavender. Steinberg was a retired Public Affairs Specialist in the Department of Agriculture while Lavender is a sociology professor at Florida International University. Both grew up on farms in the Catskills.

Steinberg presented a Marxist analysis of Jewish farming in the area. He explained that Jews came to Sullivan County in the 1800s to become farmers as an expression of the “Enlightenment” tendency in Judaism during the period. Jews thought that it was important to get back to the land and become producers. Agricultural colonies were launched in Argentina, upstate New York, New Jersey and Palestine. The farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists. He said that small Jewish farming in the Catskills died out because of the concentration of capital.

The agrarian socialism of these settlers was very much influenced by the Utopian experiments of the 19th century. When the 20th century arrived, the farmers retained their left-wing culture but began to identify with the cooperative movement of the German Social Democracy instead. When they couldn’t get fire insurance from anti-Semitic insurance companies, they started their own cooperative fire insurance company. When they needed cheap grain to feed their poultry, they started a cooperative feed-mill that bought grain directly from the National Farmers Union during the 1930s.

In Petaluma, a rural town in northern California, Jewish colonization largely focused on chicken farms, which were rather quaintly dubbed as “ranches.” Since they never occupied more than 7 acres or so, this was something of an overstatement. The typical cattle ranch in Texas is 750 acres or so.

Bonnie Burt and Judith Montell’s documentary consists of interviews with surviving members of the community, plus archival photos. Although it is a modest film, it succeeds in bringing to life a fascinating aspect of Jewish life in the USA and revealing the conflicts that still divide Jews today.

Most of the Jews in Petaluma came there with the leftwing ideas that they held in the Lower East Side or Russia. They were largely atheist, as one interviewee put it, but also with a strong sense of Jewish identity. This meant that they set up a Jewish Community Center when they got there, but no synagogue. Meetings at the center were typically held for Yiddish poets from the USSR or for radical trade union leader Harry Bridges.

This community exemplified the point made by Paul Buhle in “From the Lower East Side to Hollywood,” namely that “Yiddishkayt” or “Jewishness” has less to do with religion than it does with values and culture.

One of the Petaluma farmers, whose children figure prominently in the film, was a CP’er who took it upon himself to organize apple pickers into a trade union in 1935. An archival photo shows workers on a pickup truck holding up a sign that stated “Disarm the growers or arm the workers in self-defense squads!” Nightriders organized by and composed of local growers and bankers came to his house one night and seized him. He was tarred and feathered and warned against future organizing efforts.

Eventually, the town divided between leftist and rightist Jews during the pressures of the witch-hunt. Not surprisingly, a Jewish holocaust survivor from Germany described herself as a rightist and pinned her hopes on Israel.

One of the most endearing characters in this altogether endearing documentary is folksinger Scott Gerber, a descendant of a Petaluma chicken ranching family. Wearing a cowboy hat and riding a horse, he provides ongoing commentary that blends leftwing politics and “Yiddishkayt”. At the end of the film, he sings a song from Russian Jewish leftwing circles in the 1920s celebrating the values of farming.

A CD of his songs titled “Songs of a Jewish Cowboy” is available from the director Bonnie Burt at: http://www.bonnieburt.com/. Bonnie’s affinities should be obvious from this website. Other projects include a 15 minute film titled “Trip to Jewish Cuba.”

A website dedicated to “Jewish Chicken Ranchers in Petaluma” is at: http://www.jewishchickenranchers.com/. It includes information on how to get the film and links to fascinating archival material as well. The link to an interview with Petaluma veteran Sidney Roger from the oral history project at Berkeley provided some unique insights:

Sidney Roger: Some of the Jewish people from my neighborhood left Boyle Heights [in Ohio] and settled in the small town of Petaluma, about thirty miles north of San Francisco. Amazingly, for a long period Petaluma had a large Yiddish-speaking enclave of Jewish radicals, who raised chickens. Petaluma was once a center of Jewish radicalism.

Interviewer: Really?

Roger: Up until a very few years ago. They sold chickens and eggs and chicken feed. Some of them became very successful. Many of them gave a lot of money to “the Party,” as they called it.

Interviewer: Now one question I want to ask quickly before we move on. The party in this case would be the American Communist party?

I suppose it would be. Remember, to begin with there was no Communist party in America either until early 1920s. These people were already radicals; they didn’t have to study any dogma. They were radicals by virtue of the fact that they were opposed to oppression. That’s the big trouble with labels anyhow, isn’t it? A label without content is like a ribbon on a package. Decoration without meaning.

Why Petaluma? I suppose because under the czars, Jews were not allowed to own land and be farmers in Russia or Poland. Many of them dreamed of having a piece of land and raising fruit trees and chickens or whatever. Fruit trees take a long, long time, but chickens made a lot sense­you know the cliches about Jewish mothers and chicken soup. Anyhow, they became very good chicken farmers.

Then they were destroyed pretty much by new methods of raising chickens and trucking them into the market frozen. That’s another story. I’ve digressed, but I knew these people; I was raised among them in Boyle Heights and I’d like to talk a little bit about my relationship with them because it’s a very important story of the times.


Sidney Roger: But all this time, I’m also being politicized. My mother, for example. For you, it was almost like it was a political statement that she was willing to risk doing abortions. Obviously, I never thought of it in those terms. Now I agree. It was a statement. That she was willing to do this because it served some social purpose. Today, it really has special meaning.

Still, talking about politicizing, she was very close to a group of women who were self-styled revolutionary poetesses. All writing poetry, mostly in Yiddish, some in Russian. She also wrote some poetry.

She was very close to them. I can come back to that later if you wish. I think she thought of her life as being kind of poetical, rather than being part of a rigid doctrinaire situations where you follow someone’s line.

My father, I think, was much more rigidly doctrinaire. But my mother was socially-politicized, you might say. For example, when my mother spoke about my father, she would never say “my husband.” She would always say “my friend.” She refused to belong to anybody. Most among these women poets, were people who worked at many jobs. One was a pharmacist. I remember, she referred to her husband, Louis, as “my friend” instead of “my husband.”

Much of the poetry they read to each other were strong diatribes against man’s domination over women. I want my friend to treat me as his equal, is the idea. I used to listen to them reading with trembling emotion. I’d be in back of the office. They’d be reading in the waiting room. I’d be in the other room listening to them reading in Yiddish.

full: http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt1000013q/?search=petaluma

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