Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2006


Filed under: Film,repression — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

“Justice” is a documentary about the Brazilian court system that is clearly indebted to Frederick Wiseman’s brand of cinéma vérité, especially his 1973 “Juvenile Court.” Shown at the NY Human Rights Film Festival last year, it is now available from First Run/Icarus Films, a prime outlet for challenging documentaries.

While Wiseman’s films have a kind of Foucauldian insight into institutions as institutions, director Maria Ramos makes it clear that it is a class system that turns young people into criminals and that subjects them to a draconian legal system bent more on revenge than rehabilitation.

Ramos dramatizes the deep gulf between the judges and the judged by simply training her camera and microphone in the right direction. The judges tend to assume the worst about the accused young people in the courtroom before them. When a youth in a wheelchair charged with selling drugs asks to be put in a hospital since the crowded jail cell makes it impossible for him to go to the bathroom, she instructs him that he would need to be examined by a doctor first despite the obvious evidence of his disability.

One can understand anyone’s reluctance to be jailed in Brazil, let alone someone in a wheelchair. It is one of the most brutal and overcrowded systems in the world that spawns rebellions on a regular basis. The municipal jail seen in “Justice” is as crowded as a NYC subway car during rush hour. The inmates are literally elbow-to-elbow.

Another youth accused of drug-dealing is a frail looking youth of 18 who is the same size as a 12 year old. When he is finally released into the street after his day in court, you see him standing under a street-lamp waiting for a bus. The camera focuses on his swollen calves, clearly another symptom of his chronic health problems.

The main focus is on a youth who has been arrested for driving a stolen car borrowed from a friend that he has crashed into a tree. There is little question about his guilt since in sessions with his public defender, we learn that he has been a criminal from the age of 15 when he began selling drugs. Despite seeming barely capable of keeping himself afloat, he has impregnated his girl-friend who gives birth late in the film. She and his mother of course stand by him without having any prospects of him beating the rap or ultimately fulfilling his duties to his newborn daughter.

Like many Brazilian youth, he sold drugs because he had no other way to make a living. When cops discovered what he was up to, they did not arrest him. Instead they demanded payoffs or else they would arrest him. When he could not come up with the money, he found himself behind bars for the first time. Brazilian justice, like capitalist justice in general, has rules written and forced by the powerful against the powerless. Right and wrong is largely besides the point.

A sense of hopelessness is obviously what drives his mother to attend services at the Pentecostal Church in her ‘favela’. As the pastor whips his congregation into a frenzy, he keeps repeating the word “basta,” which means enough–as in enough of sin, enough of Satan, etc. In the very next scene, we see the judge who had given the youth in a wheelchair a hard time being sworn in for her new position on a high court. A fellow judge makes a speech in which the word “basta” keeps cropping up again, this time in reference to “enough of crime”, etc. Despite being somewhat obvious, the irony is devastating.

First Run/Icarus will also be releasing “Lula’s Brazil” this year, a documentary that according to their website argues that “Lula won an election in Brazil, but not a revolution, and as president he is sitting on top of a powder keg.”

That powder keg is obvious in “Justice”. At one point we see a judge at home in his comfortable apartment watching TV news coverage about gang violence, a phenomenon that his social class must regard as permanent as the tropical weather. Unfortunately Lula has done little since being in office to attack the structural flaws that breed youth crime in Brazil.

This month one of Brazil’s most powerful street gangs rose up against prison conditions:

A Brazilian gang kidnapped a television reporter and forced his station to broadcast a message Sunday demanding improvements in the state prison system.

The prison-based First Capital Command gang — better known by its Portuguese initials, PCC — has waged a war against the government in recent months, launching hundreds of attacks against government buildings and other properties throughout the state of Sao Paulo. The attacks began in protest of a plan to transfer gang leaders to a remote prison, but the gang’s message broadcast on Globo television early Sunday decried the prisons’ overall living conditions, health and legal services, and isolation policies.

“Brazil’s penal system is actually a human deposit, in which human beings are thrown as if they were animals,” the group stated in the video, which lasted more than three minutes…

During the message broadcast Sunday, a man identifying himself as a gang member explained that the kidnapping was the most effective way the group could get its message to the government of Sao Paulo and its citizens.

“The state has the obligation and the duty to provide a minimal standard of living conditions to the prisoners,” he stated. “We don’t want any advantages or anything else that is not within our rights.”

Considering their demand that the state has the obligation and the duty to provide a minimal standard of living conditions, one wonders who really belongs behind bars–those who make the laws or those who break them.

August 29, 2006

Al Franken: God Spoke

Filed under: Film,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

Al Franken would seem to be a natural subject for the patented D.A. Pennebaker cinéma vérité style. Ever since 1967, when Pennebaker profiled a repellent Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look Back,” he has trained his merciless gaze on a range of characters who epitomize the American obsession with wealth, celebrity and/or political ambition. He is the executive producer of “Al Franken: God Spoke,” a soon-to-be-released documentary that covers the period during which the comedian goes on a book tour for “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”, launches his Air America radio show and announces his intention to run for the US Senate from the state of Minnesota.

The film is co-directed by Pennebaker’s frequent collaborators Chris Hegedus (his wife) and Nick Doob. Although it is safe to assume that all three were sympathetic to Franken, there is something just a bit unsettling about the portrait they draw. This is of course testimony to their artistic integrity.

The film consists roughly of three overlapping episodes in Franken’s career, as mentioned above. He is most appealing on his book tour as he engages with college students around the country. Indeed, he has the style of a professor notwithstanding the occasional expletive directed at Bill O’Reilly (do professors curse in class nowadays?). In one especially engaging scene, he has a student go to the blackboard and debunk Fox-TV’s Brit Hume’s comparison between Iraq and California made on August 26, 2003:

“Two hundred seventy-seven U.S. soldiers have now died in Iraq, which means that statistically speaking U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California, which is roughly the same geographical size.”

Of course, such a comparison can only be made if you omit the fact that there are 34 million people in California and 147,000 GI’s in Iraq. In other words, it is a lie. Watching Franken’s scowl as he rakes Hume over the coals is practically worth the price of admission.

The film reviews Franken’s career from his days at Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s when the show had the courage to take on the political establishment. Like many comedians, he got his sense of humor from a parent, in this case his father.

Al Franken’s parents were transplanted NY Jews. After his father was hospitalized in intensive care in a near coma, Franken went out for a visit. The nurse struck up a conversation with the comedian, mentioning at one point that “you folks are not from around here,” a type of comment I used to hear up in Boston that I always regarded as veiled anti-Semitism. When Franken mentioned that his father had lived in Twin Cities for over three decades, the nurse replied that he didn’t have a Minnesota accent. At that point, his gravely ill father summoned the strength to say, “Not yet.”

The documentary next takes up Franken’s stint at Air America, a radio station funded by wealthy liberals that is intended to counteract rightwing radio. We see Franken and his staff celebrating after they get the news that their ratings are better than Rush Limbaugh’s, whose show airs at the same time as Franken’s. However, despite listener approval, the network did not achieve the same kind of commercial success as the rightwing competition. We see Franken looking glum over news that the Chicago and Los Angeles outlets were forced off the air. Perhaps Air America’s difficulties have something to do with the fact that bashing the Republican Party is not exactly pushing the envelope nowadays. A radio listener can tune into Don Imus any weekday morning and hear people like Frank Rich or Imus himself stick it to Bush. If one objects that Air America’s approach is more progressive than Don Imus’s, then I’d have to recommend listening to the station more frequently as much of it consists of the same sort of low level insult found on rightwing stations, but with different targets. It can be fun, but it grows tedious after a while.

Indeed, as the final third of the film, which is devoted to Franken’s growing political ambitions, unwinds, some audience members might begin to become weary of him. At the press screening, I noticed a distinct fall-off in yuks as the film staggered to its conclusion. No scene illustrates this better than Franken’s sit-down with Jimmy Carter’s Vice President and former Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, who lost to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election. If one looks to Mondale for advice on running a successful campaign, no wonder the Democratic Party is in such a deep crisis.

Leaving aside the problematic aspects of Al Franken’s latest project, the film succeeds on its own terms. As with the case of any big-time celebrity, from Franken to Bob Dylan, there is nothing like the unblinking eye of the cinéma vérité camera to help one maintain at least a clinical interest.

August 28, 2006


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Like the previous two films based on Charles Bukowski’s fiction, “Factotum” is directed by a European–the Norwegian Bent Hamer. Now appearing in theaters everywhere, it features Matt Dillon in the role of Henry Chinaski, a stand-in for Bukowski who is the narrator and major character in all of his writings. Dillon also starred recently in “Herbie Fully Loaded,” a sequel to the preteen classic featuring a VW beetle with a human personality.

Charles Bukowski

“Factotum” follows in the footsteps of “Barfly,” the 1987 film directed by the Swiss Barbet Schroeder with a screenplay by Bukowski himself. It starred Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski, a casting decision no doubt inspired by the actor’s well-known problems with booze and women. “Barfly” did not make much of an impression on me, despite Bukowski’s involvement.

The earliest attempt to convert Bukowski’s prose into film was Italian Marco Ferreri’s 1981 “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” something I have never seen. It stars Ben Gazzara, one of the USA’s more innovative actors and directors. For some odd reason, the Henry Chinaski character is renamed Charles Sirkin.

Stylistically, “Factotum” owes a lot to the minimalism of the American director Jim Jarmusch or Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. While “Barfly” depicts Chinaski as a two-fisted, hell-raising lout, the character is far more subdued and laconic in “Factotum”. Scenes are chosen from the book not so much for their conventional cinematic appeal, but for their ability to serve as minimalist set pieces.

Matt Dillon playing Bukowski/Chinaski

For example, after Chinaski has been hired for one of a string of dead-end factory jobs (factotum means somebody hired to different kinds of work), the boss discovers that he is an aspiring writer and calls him up to his office to talk to him with another manager, who is also some kind of writer. The scene mostly consists of the three men eyeballing each other. The boss asks Henry if the book he is working on deals with cancer. He answers that it does. The boss follows up by asking if there’s something about his wife as well. Henry answers that she’s in there too.

Mickey Rourke as Bukowski/Chinaski

In another scene obviously chosen for its deliberately understated effect, Chinaski is fast asleep with his companion Jan with whom he has shared a typical night of heavy drinking. When they awake to general commotion in the hallway, Chinaski opens their door to discover fireman evacuating the building’s dwellers. When Jan asks him what’s going on, he replies that it is only a fire and they go back to sleep.

This scene occupies all of chapter 43 of Bukowski’s novel:

I was too sick one morning to get up at 4:30 a.m. — or according to our clock 7:27 and one half. I shut off the alarm and went back to sleep. A couple of hours later there was a loud noise in the hall. “What the hell is it?” asked Jan.

I got out of bed. I slept in my shorts. The shorts were stained–we wiped with newspapers that we crumpled and softened with our hands–and I often didn’t get all of it cleaned off. My shorts were also ragged and had cigarette burns in them where the hot ashes had fallen in my lap.

I went to the door and opened it. There was thick smoke in the hall. Firemen in large metal helmets with numbers on them. Firemen dragging long thick hoses. Firemen dressed in asbestos. Firemen with axes. The noise and confusion was incredible. I closed the door.

“What is it?” asked Jan.

“It’s the fire department.”

“Oh,” she said. She pulled the covers up over her head, rolled on her side. I got in beside her and slept.

To get to the point of this review, it is simply impossible for the film to capture the essence of Bukowski’s prose, which is less about the event itself and more about his literary flourishes such as “My shorts were also ragged and had cigarette burns in them where the hot ashes had fallen in my lap.” Those few words do more to sum up his character than an hour of film. Bukowski had an amazing ability to hone in on details that helped to illustrate his utter degradation. It is simply beyond the capability of film to have the same effect.

“Factotum” deserves to be seen despite this liability. Matt Dillon is far closer to capturing Chinaski’s character than Mickey Rourke, who was probably imitating himself. This far more introspective and unhappy character reflects the daytime misery of a factory worker unlike “Barfly,” which is much more interested in the boozy nightlife adventures found in Bukowski’s tales.

In the final analysis, “Factotum” is true to Karl Marx’s observation that “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

(My Review of “Born into This,” a very fine documentary on Charles Bukowski.)


August 27, 2006

Another stupid 9/11 novel

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

On the front page of today’s NY Times Book Review section, there’s a rave review of “The Emperor’s Children,” a novel by Claire Messud. One of the characters is “Ludovic Seeley, an Australian magazine editor who holds nothing sacred and plans to start a contrarian publication that will spur a revolution…” Another character is a wealthy New Yorker who “purports to believe in ‘the voice of the people’ and has never met a liberal cause he doesn’t like, yet is mildly repulsed by the young, troubled black client of his wife, Annabel, who works at a nonprofit social service agency.”

Claire Messud

For those who keep track of reactionary literature, all this should ring a bell. It is the same tried-and-true themes found in Evelyn Waugh, V.S. Naipul or Tom Wolfe. Basically, leftists–whether liberal or radical–are portrayed as cynical or gullible. Their beliefs have more to do with following fashion than about changing society. Since Messud understands herself to be writing a comedy of manners, it might be expected that the leftists come across as fools. Whether they are life-like and interesting is a different matter altogether.

The NY Times has an excerpt from chapter one:

After the meal, the party resettled in the living room, where Ito/Iko curled under Gary‘s arm like a chick beneath a hen’s wing. Danielle gratefully abandoned her wineglass at the table, and sat sipping water as movement and general conversation buzzed around her in a pleasant fog. She felt a thrill of alarm-of life-when Ludovic Seeley took the armchair to her right. “What takes you to New York?” she asked. He leaned in, as she’d seen him do with Moira: intimacy, or the impression of it, was clearly his mode. But he did not touch her. His shirt cuff glowed against the plum velvet of the chair arm. “Revolution,” he said. “I’m sorry?” “I’m going to foment revolution.” She blinked, sipped, attempted silently to invite elucidation. She didn’t want to seem to him unsubtle, unironic, American. “Seriously? Seriously, I’m going to edit a magazine.” “What magazine is that?” “The Monitor.” She shook her head. “Of course you haven’t heard of it-I haven’t got there yet. It doesn’t exist yet.” “That’s a challenge.” “I’ve got Merton behind me. I like a challenge.” Danielle took this in. Augustus Merton, the Australian mogul. Busy buying up Europe, Asia, North America. Everything in English and all to the right. The enemy. Lucy, bearing coffee, appeared suddenly, tinily, before them. “He’s done it before, Danielle. He’s a man to be afraid of, our Ludo. He’s got all the politicians and the journos on the run in this town. The True Voice-have you seen it?” “Oh. Moira told me about it. I mean, she told me about you.” “We don’t see eye to eye on pretty much anything,” Lucy said with a conciliatory smile at Seeley, touching her delicate hand with its black nail polish to his lavender shoulder. “But my God, this bloke makes me laugh.” He bowed his head slightly. “A true compliment. And the first step on the road to revolution.” “And now you’re going to take on New York?” Danielle’s skepticism evidently made him bristle. “Yes,” he said clearly, his gray eyes, their hoods fully retracted, now firmly and unamusedly upon her. “Yes, I am.” . . .

Anybody will immediately pick up on the clumsy irony here. Ludovic Seeley who intends to “start a revolution”, whatever that means, is being funded by an Australian mogul who is buying things up across the world. In other words, Rupert Murdoch is a puppeteer behind the scenes orchestrating some kind of amorphous revolution. Perhaps this is a reference to Murdoch buying up the Village Voice in 1993. In doing so, his goal was mainly to make some money. He did not bother to change the paper’s editorial outlook, which was firmly behind the Clinton presidency. Some of these issues might be worth exploring in a novel, but Messud seems far more interested in glancing references to fashion rather than digging into power relationships in the manner of Honoré de Balzac.

In another NY Times book review that appeared on August 22, Michiko Kakutani referred to Murray Thwaite, one of the main characters, as follows:

The ”emperor” of this hollow land is Murray– a literary lion of sorts, who made his name during the 60’s and 70’s for his essays protesting the war and promoting civil rights, and who has since become a fixture on the college lecture circuit. He is one of those men who preside over their families and legion of followers with suave paternalism; chief among the worshipers at his self-erected temple are Marina and her cousin Bootie, who has dropped out of college and yearns to become Murray’s disciple.

The Economist informs us that “Thwaite made his name young, studying France’s wartime resistance movement while on a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, and is devoted to his wife of many years, a saintly lawyer who represents the ‘battered housewife or burly, knuckleheaded truant'”. Well, who knows. Some novelists enjoy satirizing scholars of the French Resistance and lawyers who represent battered housewives. If I were to spend 2 years writing a satire, I might choose other targets. Like Michael Bloomberg, Marty Peretz or Christopher Hitchens. But somehow I doubt that I could find a publisher or a major newspaper to hype it.

Into this world of the glitterati, a deus ex machina enters in the form of two jetliners that crash into the WTC. Messud’s novel is one of a clutch of fictions prompted by 9/11. It can be placed on the same shelf as Ian McEwan’s openly reactionary “Saturday” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Foer’s main character is a 9 year old who writes letters to Stephen Hawking, designs jewelry, and wanders about New York City wearing only white while playing the tambourine after his father is killed on 9/11. Stupidity must run in the family based on the evidence that Foer’s brother Franklin has become editor of New Republic.

The Village Voice’s literary critic, who figures as a character in Messud’s novel, sums up the relationship to 9/11 this way: “As the characters hurl toward that terrible September day, the narrative goes beyond mere social satire, deepening into a hypnotic, moving read.” Messud ties her characters to September 11th by making Ludovic Seeley’s new magazine about “Revolution” a financial casualty of the terrorist attack and an end to the Wall Street boom. With the grim new realities, apparently there’s no market for “Revolution”, whatever that is supposed to mean for Claire Messud.

Critics have remarked that Claire Messud is supposedly writing about a milieu that she is familiar with. She has written for the London Observer and the NY Times. She is married to Harvard professor James Wood, the New Republic’s literary critic who used to co-teach courses with the bilious and deceased neoconservative novelist Saul Bellow.

James Wood in a Harvard classroom

While no critic has made the connection between Messud and her high-powered husband, it is clear to me that his views on September 11th have influenced her. In a think-piece that appeared in the Guardian, a month after the WTC attack, Wood asserted that “US novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter.” Notwithstanding the rave reviews, I doubt that his wife has achieved such a goal.

Ultimately, there is little likelihood that a Claire Messud, a John Updike or a Ian McEwan can really do justice to the significance of September 11, since they are so limited in their understanding of the “Other”. In order to imagine the anger that would fuel a terrorist to fly a jet plane into the World Trade Center, you would have to get into the mind of an Islamic radical. Such are the global realities of today that such a leap of imagination is precluded. In the face of such an immense gulf, it is no surprise that bombs go off across the planet in complete defiance of the “war on terror”.

August 26, 2006


Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 4:25 pm

“Xala” is a Wolof word for sexual impotence, but it might just as well mean political impotence in Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s view. This 1975 film is a scathing satire on his nation’s elite personified by the sexual failure of his main character, a corrupt middle-aged businessman who can’t “get it up” for his brand-new third wife, who is younger than the daughter of his first marriage, on their wedding night.

“Xala” lays bare all of Senegal’s class inequality, built on the bogus principles of “African Socialism” and the heavy-handed rule of “Negritude” poet Leopold Senghor, whose name is not mentioned once in the film but whose troubled legacy clearly disgusts the Marxist Sembene.

Before the film’s credits roll across the screen, Sembene establishes the underlying premise. On the day of national independence, the French and the local bourgeoisie are sitting opposite each other around a conference table in the capitol building in Dakar. After the Blacks make a few statements about how a new day of “African socialism” is dawning, the French push attaché cases across the table filled with cash.

One of the recipients is an importer and government deputy named El Hadji Aboucader Beye (Thierno Leye) who is a typical Sembene character, not quite a villain but more of a self-important and ignorant foil to female characters, who always come off as more in touch with the real world. This includes Rama, his college student daughter from his first marriage, who tells him that polygamists are liars. When he challenges her to repeat this charge, she does so and is slapped to the ground for her honesty. El Hadji reminds her that polygamy is part of their national patrimony, as if having multiple wives is the same thing as the right to bear arms or to vote.

Sembene, a Marxist, skewers the pretensions of this peculiar comprador bourgeoisie that has adopted some of his movement’s phraseology, but none of its class principles. When El Hadji meets with senior government officials in a kind of trial over his financial misdeeds (he is an extraordinary crook, not an ordinary one like him), the meeting almost breaks down with mutual recriminations, including the charge of being a “feudalist”. When El Hadji decides to make his case in Wolof, he is accused of being “racist, sectarian and reactionary”. For veterans of the sectarian Marxist left, El Hadji’s trial will certainly be a reminder of things that they have experienced in party purges.

Sembene is equally outraged at the tendency of this upper crust to adopt European habits and values, despite lip-service to African nationalism. El Hadji constantly brags about his European connections and insists on speaking French to his colleagues. So enthralled by the notion of European superiority that he has his chauffeur wash the car and fill the radiator with bottles of Evian kept in the trunk of his Mercedes sedan.

The various wives hold El Hadji in complete contempt. For them, the marriage is simply a means to avoid the grinding poverty of Senegal. For people like El Hadji and his fellow government crooks, the poor are an inconvenient reminder of Senegal’s reality. When a band of lepers and polio victims show up outside his store, he calls the cops to remove them. At the end of the film, they take their vengeance on him.

If his European pretensions are not enough to condemn El Hadji, they are complemented by a foolish belief in witch doctor cures for his impotence. When his chauffeur takes him to a village on the outskirts of Dakar to be cured of Xala, we understand that Senegal’s elite is as hobbled by indigenous superstition as it is by belief in European superiority. There are no Marxist happy endings in Sembene’s films. A hapless victim of thievery and corruption looks incredulously at a postman who urges collective action to change Senegalese society at the conclusion of “Mandabi”. Similarly, “Xala” ends on a note of despair, the only ray of hope perhaps found in El Hadji’s ruin at the hands of creditors and the beggars he has victimized.

The government of Senegal did not like what it saw in “Xala” and forced Sembene to make 11 cuts. Unlike Senghor, Sembene has no interest in romanticizing the past. He has subjected native polytheism as well as Islam to ridicule. This has not been an obstacle to popular acceptance based on the fact that his films are universally revered in Africa.

“Xala” is based on Sembene’s novel of the same name. His career was informed by his participation in the French Communist Party and by his experiences as a writer. The former gave him a keen insight into class relationships, while the latter helped him to approach film-making with a higher level of understanding about plot, character development and other nuances frequently absent in screenwriting.

A short essay on the novel by postcolonial scholar Phoebe Koch reveals the complexity of Sembene’s approach:

Muslim women are often envisioned as playing the role of humble servant to a dominating male figure. While El Hadji certainly orders his wives around, they are by no means the docile and submissive characters of western popular imagination. El Hadji’s second wife, Oumi N’Doye, employs powerful skills of persuasion and mental torture to exact what she wants from her husband. Often, it appears as if El Hadji simply plays the role of economic provider for his three families, enjoying neither the love nor companionship of his wives and children. His eleven children unanimously greet him with hands outstretched, demanding money. The degree of fairness with which El Hadji treats his two families provides a constant source of chagrin for the members of each, and results in his being hounded daily. The extent to which his economic support provides the only link between El Hadji and his dependents becomes clear towards the end of Ousmane’s fable. When El Hadji loses his money, he loses his wives along with it. Only his first wife, perhaps because she herself owns her villa, remains until the end.

Once again I am reminded of the quote from Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” that I incorporated into my review of “Mandabi”:

The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules… Within the family, he [the husband] is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat.

August 25, 2006

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Like the rugged Japanese seacoast he lives on, Gou-ichi Takata, now in his seventies, is a cold and remote figure. He only decides to leave his Spartan quarters after receiving a distraught phone call from his daughter-in-law Rie informing him that his son Ken-ichi, who he has been estranged from for decades, is dying of liver cancer in a Tokyo hospital.

After arriving at the hospital, he discovers that his son will not see him. He cannot forgive him for a decades-old offense that is never explained in a narrative that gathers strength from words unspoken. As impassive as ever, Takata shrugs his shoulders and exits the hospital. As he reaches the parking lot, Rie catches up with him to fill him in on his son’s greatest passion, videotaping folk opera on location in China. Together they then watch a tape made by him a year earlier in Yunnan province of a celebrated local troupe. If Ken-ichi returns the following year, the lead singer will perform “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” a song that he brags is his specialty.

In an attempt to reconcile with his dying son, Takata decides to go to Yunnan province, track down the lead singer Li Jiamin, and tape him performing this song. Thus begins “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” a masterpiece of a film by Zhang Yimou, China’s greatest director. Its theme resonates with one found in some of the world’s greatest literature, namely psychological and moral transformation in the face of death–either on the part of the person fated to die, or those close to him or her.

We are reminded of Tolstoy’s terminally ill Ivan Ilyich who acknowledges his brother-in-law’s alarmed gaze: “I have changed, eh?” The change, of course, that Tolstoy is concerned with is psychological rather than physical. It also evokes Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” (To Live) a film about a cold and aging bureaucrat, who, after learning that he has incurable cancer, dedicates the remainder of his life to making things better for other people. Indeed, this film is “Riding’s” closest relative thematically. The only difference between Takata and the bureaucrat in “Ikiru” is that it his son’s imminent passing rather than his own that compels Takata to take stock of his life and to seek transcendence.

Once he arrives in Yunnan province, Takata learns that the singer Li Jiamin is serving a three year prison term, the consequence of stabbing a fellow performer in the face with a wooden dagger for questioning his talent. When his translator advises him that it will be impossible to film inside a Chinese prison, Takata–stony-faced as ever–will not be daunted. He is like the character celebrated in the song: the mighty general Guan Yu who sacrificed titles and riches to ride to the aid of a friend

Takata is joined in his quest by “Lingo”, another translator who can barely speak a word of Japanese, but who compensates for this by a willingness to go to the ends of the earth
with Takata, whose paternal devotion moves him beyond words. In their quixotic quest to film what defies filming, the comic Lingo serves as a Sancho Panza.

Once the two men break down the resistance of Chinese governmental and prison authorities in the course of a series of bittersweet comical encounters, they set up the camera in the recreation room of the prison. But just as Li Jiamin is cued to sing “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” he breaks down sobbing. He confesses that he is estranged from his own 8 year old out-of-wedlock son, who lives in the remote Stone Village in Yunnan province and who he had abandoned at birth. Takata’s quest reminds him of his own loss and he is now too distraught to perform. Takata decides on the spot to travel to Stone Village and bring the boy Yang Yang back to the prison, thus reconciling all parties. Suffice it to say, that this new stage of the quest is as quixotic as everything that has preceded it.

Thankfully, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” marks a return to the more humanistic concerns of films such as the 1999 “Not One Less” and the 1987 “Red Sorghum”. After making a typical Jet Li vehicle titled “Hero” in 2002 and another martial arts spectacle titled “House of the Flying Dagger” in 2004, both of which unfortunately embrace the computer graphics approach to combat scenes (characters defy gravity repeatedly as if in a Chagall painting), Zhang Yimou refocuses his talents on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. He has also cast nonprofessionals once again in key roles, including Yang Zhenbo as Yang Yang, who was selected from 70,000 boys who auditioned for the part! The singer Li Jiamin is played by Li Jiamin himself, a veteran of Chinese folk opera.

But the key casting decision was to feature veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura in the role of Gou-ichi Takata. Takakura, who might be called the Clint Eastwood of Japanese film, was essential to the realization of Zhang Yimou’s artistic vision. In press notes for the screening, Zhang says, “I have always wanted to work with Ken Takakura. I started writing this script five years ago. It is tailor-made for him. If Takakura didn’t like the story, I would have started from scratch.”

Charges have been raised from time to time that Zhang Yimou is an apologist for the Chinese government. Indeed, “Hero” has been interpreted as a veiled defense of contemporary authoritarian rule. The film depicts ancient China being unified under the cruel but necessary rule of the legendary King of Qin. One imagines that Zhang is grappling with such questions by having the prison warden remonstrate with Takata over the need to keep film-makes out of Chinese prisons, since they have only been interested in turning world opinion against their society unfairly. Of course, that politically-charged goal does not mitigate the very real inhumanity found in Chinese prisons. Western hostility to China should not make us accept the fact that it rates number one in the world for capital punishment.

Ultimately, however, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is not about politics. It is a very personal film that seeks to dramatize human relationships that will be with us under any social system. In that respect, it finds its place alongside the best work of Akira Kurosawa, who has obviously had an impact on Zhang Yimou, as well as William Shakespeare whose plays provided the plot for several of Kurosawa’s films.

“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” opens Friday, Sept. 1 at Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinemas in New York. I give this film my very highest recommendation.

August 23, 2006

Turkey’s Calvinist Muslims

Filed under: economics,Islam — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

In early 2003, after a visit to Istanbul, I wrote an article titled “Istanbul Impressions” that contained the following observation:

Not far from my quarters in upper Bostanci (pronounced Bostanji), a middle-class neighborhood on the Asian side reminiscent of Flushing, Queens, there is a major shopping drag called Bagdat Avenue. (There is an accent under the g in Bagdat that Microsoft cannot accommodate. It is silent and is used to extend the vowel immediately before it. In this case, you would pronounce it “Baahdat”.) Despite the fact that this avenue is named after the capital of Iraq, there is nothing Mideastern about it except for the occasional mosque–ubiquitous to all of Istanbul, including the most occidental sections.) It is a bustling thoroughfare with expensive European clothing outlets, banks and doctors’ offices. On Saturday night the sidewalks are crowed with elegantly dressed Turks who often have a full shopping bag in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

(The recent Islamic electoral victory might be interpreted as a reaction to Bagdat Avenue ostentation. However, things are never quite that clear. One of my Turkish hosts pointed out to me a couple of women in scarves who were carrying Hermes handbags. The next day she also brought my attention to a newspaper article that highlighted the success of “Islamic stylishness”, an approach that its promoters hoped to win secular Turks to its cause.)

Last night PBS Wide Angle aired a documentary titled “Turkey’s Tigers: Faith and Prosperity in Turkey” that fleshed out the scarves/Hermes phenomenon. It was produced by Jon Alpert, an outstanding documentary-maker whose recent HBO film “Baghdad ER” I reviewed a while back. Alpert, who is obviously a very sophisticated artist with a deep understanding of how class society operates, really nails down the Turkish reality here.

“Turkey’s Tigers” focuses on Mustafa Karaduman, CEO of Turkey’s largest Islamic-style clothing chain, Tekbir Giyim. (Tekbir Giyim means “Allah is Great Clothing”). Karaduman decided to fill a market niche in the 1992 by creating stylish clothing for conservative Muslim women. He now has over 600 stores throughout Turkey and across Europe.


Mustafa Karaduman, with his employees.

The documentary shows the savvy marketing skills of Tekbir’s CEO, who hosts a fashion show for his latest line that features one of Turkey’s hottest models. We learn that she is not religious herself and has posed nearly nude in fashion magazines. After a Tekbir show, Karaduman shakes her hand. Later that night he agonizes over that decision and wishes that he had presented her with a bouquet instead. He is a man who is always thinking tactically, it seems. This would be reflected as well by his latest design, a neck to ankle swim suit for the conservative woman.

Karaduman and other Islamic businessmen hail from Kayseri, a city on the Anatolian plains that is on the leading edge of Islamic capitalism. Another local son is Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul of the ruling AK party, whose visage I saw nightly on Turkish television the last time I was there. We discover in an interview from “Turkey’s Tigers” that Gul feels an affinity for American society and hopes that Turkey’s success, at least understood in his terms, can open doors in the European Union and allay American fears that Islam and terrorism are synonymous. Indeed, the main impression one gets from these Islamic businessman and politicians is how alike they are with their American Rotary Club and Republican Party counterparts. Basically, Islamic rule–or the Turkish variation on that–is not that different from Red State rule.

At one point, Karaduman explains his understanding of Islam’s 5 main precepts. The first three have to do with prayer and the body, while the last two have to do with the need to conduct business. Business is important because it allows you to afford a trip to Mecca and to pay alms for charity that will allow the less fortunate Islamic brothers to survive. I was struck by how similar this was to the concept of a ‘mitzvah’ in Orthodox Judaism. Jews are encouraged to succeed in business so that they can afford to be charitable to fellow Jews who lack the acumen to accumulate capital.

As the title of the documentary conveys, the culture of these Islamic businessmen is very much “tiger” oriented–as in the Asian tigers of the 1990s. On August 15, 2006 an International Herald Tribune article titled “‘Protestant work ethic’ in Muslim Turkey” by Dan Bilefsky elaborated:

As Turkey seeks to join the European Union amid growing skepticism in Europe about the prospect of integrating a large agrarian Muslim country into one of the world’s biggest trading blocs, the case of Kayseri shows that Islam, capitalism and globalization can be compatible.

Central Anatolia is profiting from its mix of religion and business because of what local Muslim entrepreneurs refer to without irony as their “Protestant work ethic” – a willingness to work long hours, a commitment to combine religious conservatism with democracy and a pro-business bias within Turkish Islam. Analysts say Kayseri also got an edge by building one of the largest Turkish industrial zones; in 2004 it applied to the Guinness Book of World Records for starting the construction of 139 new businesses in a single day.

But the region also is experiencing tensions between Turkey’s official secularism and its religious fervor, suggesting that reconciling Islam and business can create challenges.

“If you’re not a good Muslim, don’t pray five times a day and don’t have a wife who wears a head scarf, it can be difficult to do business here,” said Halil Karacavus, managing director of the Kayseri sugar factory, one of the biggest Turkish businesses, which expects €500 million, or $642 million, in revenue this year.

Even so, business is thriving, a fact that local business leaders attribute to an entrepreneurial spirit that, they say, is also part of Islam. Herdem said that the secret behind the city’s business prowess could be traced to the Prophet Muhammad, himself a trader, who preached merchant honor and commanded that 90 percent of a Muslim’s life be devoted to work in order to put food on the table. Opening a factory in Islam is a sort of prayer, Herdem added.

“In Kayseri we like to say that if you are stupid, go to school,” he said. “If you are clever, go into business.

“It is good for a religious person to work hard, to save, to invest in the community,” he continued, noting proudly that while bustling cafés are a prominent feature of Turkish life, there is only one café in Hacilar, and it is usually empty because everyone is always off somewhere completing a deal.

Back in the autumn of 1978, when my career in the Trotskyist movement was winding down, I was selling the Militant newspaper at the front door of a supermarket in Kansas City. A middle-aged woman approached me and–pointing to a late-model Buick–said, “You see that car? Jesus got me that car. Get right with God and you can be blessed like me.”

After watching last night’s documentary, I realized that this woman had more in common with the AK party in Turkey than I ever will.


This show can now be watched online at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/shows/turkey/video.html

August 21, 2006

Against “democracy”; for democracy

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

(Thanks to Lenin’s Tomb for calling this to our attention. It is from a blog called “Maxims and Reflections” that I am not familiar with. It bears paying attention to.)

Over at michaelberube dot com, to which I am not inclined to link, the good professor has been having a carnivalesque week of strenuous dismissals of what he calls, with reference to the hundreds of thousands of people who have demonstrated in London recently, the “we are all Hezbollah now” left; this in contrast to his own position on what he calls the “democratic left”. (These democrats are always rather horrified at the demos, have you noticed?) Suffice it to say that I am as suspicious of the “democratic” “left” as the professor is of what he so witheringly calls the “radical” “left”. Maybe even for some of the same reasons. And that’s not to say I agree with everybody Berube argues against, or disagree with everything he says, but then I don’t have to. Puritanism is for puritans.

But there is a powerful undertow toward power in the discourse of the “democratic” “left” that I finally find so dismaying that I have no choice but to reject the thing root and branch. Because few people they accuse of defending Milosevic or Hussein or Nasrallah or any other Hitler-Of-The-Month has defended these people with anything like the vigor and passion with which the “democratic” “left” has implicitly defended Bush, Clinton or Bush; or, if not these men themselves, then the right of these men to send an army anywhere, to level any city from the air, to destroy any state, to define any population as criminal, outlaw, subhuman. I don’t necessarily say this is right-wingery; some on the “democratic” “left” regard it as an adaptation of Marxism and they may be correct! I am cheerfully willing to commit the great Marxist heresy of moralism and say only that it is wrong.

full: http://sweet-nothing.livejournal.com/14751.html

August 19, 2006

Rotten Timber

Filed under: Academia,cruise missile left,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 1:48 am

A couple of months ago a recent graduate of Columbia University–an East Asian by birth and Marxist by affinity–wondered why I was bothering writing comments to academic blogs like Crooked Timber and Cliopatria. I explained that I began reading Crooked Timber because it was touted as an important liberal group blog and I felt obligated to give it about the same thirty seconds I give each day to slate.com and salon.com. I didn’t want to miss anything important in the world of parliamentary cretinism.

For about a year I would check in on Crooked Timber and say absolutely nothing. Mostly there was no reason to say anything since the typical blog entry is something John Holbo’s “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” that begins:

I had a nice night. Before that, I chased two kids around for six hours (ages 2 and 5). That was ok. Then I went to pick up Indian take-out. Waiting, I … relaxed. A beer. Watch the Australian tourists talk to each other.

Holbo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. I am glad that I dropped out of the New School philosophy program 39 years ago if this what the discipline leads to.

John Holbo

In February 2005, I finally found something worth posting about. Along with the rightwing blogosphere and the “decent” left (Marc Cooper et al), Crooked Timber opened up an attack on Ward Churchill. Since I was familiar with his work and got to know him personally (not an easy task), I jumped in to defend him. As you might imagine, this led to a series of heated exchanges. Ward should have learned to get along in the academy like John Holbo and saved himself the trouble of clashing with Republican governors and Fox-TV.

The only other time I made my presence felt was when the subject of Yugoslavia came up. One of the Crooked Timber contributors is a character named Chris Bertram who is a Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol and who is nearly as banal as his fellow philosopher John Holbo.

Chris Bertram: Crooked Timber, Crooked Smile

Bertram is a member in good standing of the Cruise Missile Left who used to be on the editorial board of New Left Review. Although I am not exactly sure of the reasons for his departure, he was joined by fellow board members Branka Magas and Quentin Hoare (the parents of the howling Serbophobe Attila Hoare), and the ineffable Norm Geras. Showing that he understands the need to subjugate the barbarians further east as well, he penned an article titled “Afghanistan: A Just Intervention” for “Imprints, a journal of Analytical Socialism” in 2002. Basically it is the same argument that Michael Bérubé made around the same time, namely that George W. Bush could be an agent of progressive change despite his sleazy past. Needless to say, such arguments were shaped by the prevailing mood of the time that was not dissimilar to that described by Rosa Luxemburg in the Junius Pamphlet:

Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.

Since Serb-bashing is fairly well entrenched at Crooked Timber, I was surprised to discover that one of the contributors by the name of John Quiggin had a change of heart–sort of. He wrote something called “Second Thoughts on Kosovo” that expressed misgivings over the lack of a UN Security Council fig-leaf to legitimize the war. Since the Security Council is widely understood to be dominated by the USA and its lackeys, one can reasonably ask what the big deal is. He frets that ignoring international law might have led to the Iraq disaster. Obviously, the war in Iraq and NATO’s war in Yugoslavia had exactly the same causes, the drive of the USA to establish and maintain global hegemony in pursuit of profit. Some people like Christopher Hitchens are consistent in their support of both wars, while Quiggin and company quibble over the law. The law, as someone once said, is an ass and so is he.

I should add that Quiggin teaches economics in Australia and exhibits the same kind of genial superficiality as Holbo. I guess standards are laxer in Australia than they are elsewhere in academia.

John Quiggin after orderlies removed his razor

In the course of the discussion on Quiggin’s piece, I posted four times. For most blogs that is considered fairly normal. After I tried to post a fifth comment, Quiggin announced:

Louis, I think your defence of Milosevic has been put forward at sufficient length. I;ve deleted your last comment and anything further from you on this thread will be deleted.

To everyone else, please don’t feed the trolls by responding further to pro-Milosevic apologists – the answers already given are adequate. On the same topic, don’t bother responding to “Steve” either. Anything from him will be deleted.

This is par for the course. Over on Cliopatria, I had to withdraw after blog-meister Ralph Luker made an ominous remark about me wasting my employer’s money by posting on the job. As soon as I heard that, I beat a hasty retreat. Having a job is more important to me than arguing with ill-tempered reactionary professors.

That’s it for me as well on Crooked Timber. I imagine that there are some young people who have read my comments there and who enjoy watching a sans-culotte like myself making fools of tenured professors, but I won’t put up with censorship–not from the government and not from a bunch of liberal professors.


Apparently Quiggin is not finished censoring other commenters on the Crooked Timber blog:

Deleted. I’ve previously advised Dan Simon that his comments add nothing of value, and will be deleted. His latest gives me no reason to change my view. As with other trolls, could I ask readers not to bother responding JQ

He jumped on Simon so quickly that I didn’t even have a chance to see what Quiggin considered trolling. Simon’s blog even includes a link to Crooked Timber, so he obviously is friendly to them–unlike me. God knows what he wrote. A recommendation to read Miranda Vickers? A suggestion that the KLA were drug-dealing terrorists who have turned Kosovo into a hell for all non-Albanians? Who knows. He has dropped into the memory hole of this misbegotten swamp of Cruise Missile Leftists.

August 18, 2006

Separated at birth?

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm


Bela Lugosi, actor who played the vampire Dracula


Nick Cohen, the British pro-war leftist who also has a fondness for blood

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