Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 30, 2009

Old Partner; The Chaser

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Serendipitously, two very fine Korean movies open today in New York.

In keeping with the high standards of the Korean film industry that I have called attention to in past reviews, one is a documentary titled “Old Partner” showing at the Film Forum. The “old partner” referred to in the title is a 40 year old ox on his last legs, the prize possession of Choi Won-kyun and Lee Sam-soon, husband and wife farmers, who are stooped over from old age and backbreaking work. The general mood of the film evokes Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

In the same manner as Gray’s poem, there is a muted but recognizable rejection of industrialism’s benefits. Choi refuses to use insecticide because it threatens to poison his ox. He also refuses to use a rice-harvesting machine because too many grains will be lost. Even though he is in his 80s, he prefers to gather up the rice by hand. His wife, who is forced to work alongside him, nags him throughout the film. Sell the ox. Get a machine. Use insecticide. He ignores her all the while, facilitated no doubt by the fact that he is nearly deaf. Meanwhile, the only sound he strains to hear is the bell attached to his ox’s neck that provides a kind of soundtrack throughout the film. Its constant tinkling reminds you more of a Buddhist temple than hard labor, accentuated by the sight of the beast’s oddly beatific gaze.

Choi travels everywhere in a cart drawn by his beloved ox, even to the nearest city where he observes a demonstration by local activists against the importation of American cattle. They chant “No to Mad Cow!” Choi says not a word as he trudges slowly by, but it is clear that he is in sympathy, as is the film’s director no doubt.

An interview with director Lee Chung-ryoul is worth quoting in its entirety:

Where did the idea from the movie come from? Why do you think it was important to make this film?

I happened to visit a cattle market for coverage in 1999 where I saw an ox shed tears looking at his former owner as he was being pulled away by his new owner. That moment reminded me of my father’s ox from my childhood.

Before industrialization, the business of the Korean countryside was the sole domain of oxen and our fathers. They were heroes, idols and the driving force of Korean agricultural development. Since industrialization, however, they had nothing to do. Oxen became only beef; our fathers retired and aged with an aging town.

The situation makes me sad. So I wanted to recollect the devotion and beautiful sympathy of farmers and oxen in this film, and the scenery might be the last moment of this age. This film is dedicated to the oxen and our fathers devoted to this land.

How did you meet this farmer?

For five years, I traveled around the nation to find a proper ox and farmer. In early 2005, someone told me there was a proper man and an ox in a small town in Bong-wha. I was so lucky to encounter them.

What elements of the South Korean culture are portrayed in the movie?

Before the introduction of farm machinery to the countryside, our farms totally depended upon oxen. This film portrays the core of Korean agricultural practices. Also, it shows aspects of traditional Korean culture, such as patriarchy, unequal conjugal relationships and the commitment of parents to educate their children at any cost. It also shows the affection for oxen, who are considered family members and collaborative partners, not just animals.

* * * *

While “The Chaser” could not be farther apart from “Old Partner” in mood and subject matter, it too expresses the supreme filmmaking talents coming out of Korea today. Directed by Na Hong-jin, this is an ultra-noir tale of a detective-turned-pimp’s attempt to track down a serial killer who has made victims out of a couple of his prostitutes and has rendered a third close to death with his favorite weapon, a hammer and chisel.

Jung-ho, the pimp, is anything but a hero. His main motivation is to track down who has been dragooning his prostitutes and selling them on the flesh market, refusing to believe that a serial killer is at fault, even after he has apprehended the man quite by accident—literally so through a fender-bender. As the cops come upon Jung-ho who is standing over the bloodied victim, he demands to know where Young-min—the killer—has sold the girls. Even after Young-min confesses that he is indeed a mass murderer at the local police station, Jung-ho refuses to believe his ears. It is clear that this cynical flesh merchant, who his now half-dead call girl nicknamed “Filth” on her cell phone, can only see things in terms of money. As such, he is the quintessential denizen of a society that has lost its moorings.

In the press notes for “The Chaser”, we learn the social context for this sizzling crime story:

The public’s interest for serial murder cases which brought fear to a society is immediately forgotten even before the tears of the victims or their families have dried up. In an individualistic society indifferent to others and centered on individual materialistic gains, questions such as, “What kind of people were the victims? What efforts have I or society has made to save them?” have never even crossed the minds of what society has become today. This type of society which has come about and looked at by one ordinary person is the starting point for THE CHASER. Not simply exaggerating the subject matter of a shocking serial murder case, this film paints one man’s breathless shocking efforts to save one person whose precious life is at stake while fighting against preposterous circumstances and a faulty social system.

It is not hard to understand why Korean filmmakers would embrace the noir genre. In the United States, it reached its zenith in the post-WWII years as Hollywood screenwriters, especially leftists like Abraham Polonsky, discovered that the optimism of the New Deal was giving way to the Cold War and conformity.

In Korea, there is evidence everywhere that the once bright future of a star Tiger economy has been dashed. The first hammer blow took place in the late 1990s and a new round of contraction appears inevitable.

Leaving aside the socio-political backdrop, “The Chaser” is a tightly wound thriller that avoids the typical clichés of Hollywood slasher movies even though it is not above some truly gruesome images. As Jung-ho, the detective turned pimp, and Mi-jin, the serial killer, Kim Yoon-suk and Ha Jung-woo turn in bravura performances.

“The Chaser” opens today at the IFC Theater in New York and is strongly recommended.

December 29, 2009

David Levine, Astringent Illustrator, Dies at 83

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

NY Times, December 30, 2009

David Levine, Astringent Illustrator, Dies at 83


David Levine, a painter and illustrator whose macro-headed, somberly expressive, astringently probing and hardly ever flattering caricatures of intellectuals and athletes, politicians and potentates were the visual trademark of The New York Review of Books for nearly half a century, died Tuesday morning in Manhattan. He was 83 and lived in Brooklyn.

His death, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was caused by prostate cancer and a subsequent combination of illnesses, his wife, Kathy Hayes, said.

Mr. Levine’s drawings never seemed whimsical, like those of Al Hirschfeld. They didn’t celebrate neurotic self-consciousness, like Jules Feiffer’s. He wasn’t attracted to the macabre, the way Edward Gorey was. His work didn’t possess the arch social consciousness of Edward Sorel’s. Nor was he interested, as Roz Chast is, in the humorous absurdity of quotidian modern life. But in both style and mood, Mr. Levine was as distinct an artist and commentator as any of his well-known contemporaries. His work was not only witty but serious, not only biting but deeply informed, and artful in a painterly sense as well as a literate one. Those qualities led many to suggest that he was the heir of the 19th-century masters of the illustration, Honoré Daumier and Thomas Nast.

Especially in his political work, his portraits betrayed the mind of an artist concerned, worriedly concerned, about the world in which he lived. Among his most famous images were those of President Lyndon B. Johnson pulling up his shirt to reveal that the scar from his gallbladder operation was in the precise shape of the boundaries of Vietnam, and of Henry Kissinger having sex on the couch with a female body whose head was in the shape of a globe, depicting, Mr. Levine explained later, what Mr. Kissinger had done to the world. He drew Richard M. Nixon, his favorite subject, 66 times, depicting him as the Godfather, as Captain Queeg, as a fetus.

With those images and others — Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon in a David-and-Goliath parable; or Alan Greenspan, with scales of justice, balancing people and dollar bills, hanging from his downturned lips; or Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. carrying a gavel the size of a sledgehammer — Mr. Levine’s drawings sent out angry distress signals that the world was too much a puppet in the hands of too few puppeteers. “I would say that political satire saved the nation from going to hell,” he said in an interview in 2008, during an exhibit of his work called “American Presidents” at the New York Public Library.

Even when he wasn’t out to make a political point, however, his portraits — often densely inked, heavy in shadows cast by outsize noses on enormous, eccentrically shaped heads, and replete with exaggeratedly bad haircuts, 5 o’clock shadows, ill-conceived mustaches and other grooming foibles — tended to make the famous seem peculiar-looking in order to take them down a peg.

“They were extraordinary drawings with extraordinary perception,” Jules Feiffer said in a recent interview about the work of Mr. Levine, who was his friend. He added: “In the second half of the 20th century he was the most important political caricaturist. When he began, there was very little political caricature, very little literary caricature. He revived the art.”

David Levine was born on Dec. 20, 1926, in Brooklyn, where his father, Harry, ran a small garment shop and his mother, Lena, a nurse, was a political activist with Communist sympathies. A so-called red diaper baby, Mr. Levine leaned politically far to the left throughout his life. His family lived a few blocks from Ebbetts Field, where young David once shook the hand of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became a hero, as did his wife, Eleanor. Years later, Mr. Levine’s caricature of Mrs. Roosevelt depicted her as a swan.

“I thought of her as beautiful,” he said. “Yet she was very homely.”

As a boy he sketched the stuffed animals in the vitrines at the Brooklyn Museum. He served in the Army just after World War II, then graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a degree in education and another degree from Temple’s Tyler School of Art. He also studied painting at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and with the Abstract Expressionist painter and renowned teacher Hans Hofmann.

Indeed, painting was Mr. Levine’s first love; he was a realist, and in 1958 he and Aaron Shikler (whose portrait of John F. Kennedy hangs in the White House) founded the Painting Group, a regular salon of amateurs and professionals who, for half a century, got together for working sessions with a model. A documentary about the group, “Portraits of a Lady,” focusing on their simultaneous portraits of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was made in 2007; the portraits themselves were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.

Mr. Levine’s paintings, mostly watercolors, take as their subjects garment workers — a tribute to his father’s employees, who he said never believed that their lives could be seen as connected to beauty — or the bathers at his beloved Coney Island. In a story he liked to tell, he was painting on the boardwalk when he was approached by a homeless man who demanded to know how much he would charge for the painting. Mr. Levine, nonplussed, said $50.

“For that?” the man said.

The paintings are a sharply surprising contrast to his caricatures: sympathetic portraits of ordinary citizens, fond and respectful renderings of the distinctive seaside architecture, panoramas with people on the beach.

“None of Levine’s hard-edged burlesques prepare you for the sensuous satisfactions of his paintwork: the matte charm of his oil handling and the virtuoso refinement of his watercolors,” the critic Maureen Mullarkey wrote in 2004. “Caustic humor gives way to unexpected gentleness in the paintings.”

Mr. Levine’s successful career as a caricaturist and illustrator took root in the early 1960s, when he started working for Esquire. He began contributing cover portraits and interior illustrations to The New York Review of Books in 1963, its first year of publication, and within its signature blocky design his cerebral, brooding faces quickly became identifiable as, well, the cerebral, brooding face of the publication. He always worked from photographs, reading the accompanying article first to glean ideas.

“I try first to make the face believable, to give another dimension to a flat, linear drawing; then my distortions seem more acceptable,” he said.

From 1963 until 2007, after Mr. Levine received a diagnosis of macular degeneration and his vision deteriorated enough to affect his drawing, he contributed more than 3,800 drawings to The New York Review. Over the years he did 1,000 or so more for Esquire; almost 100 for Time, including a number of covers (one of which, for the 1967 Man of the Year issue, depicted President Johnson as a raging and despairing King Lear); and dozens over all for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and other publications.

Mr. Levine’s first marriage ended in divorce. Besides Ms. Hayes, his partner for 32 years whom he married in 1996, he is survived by two children, Matthew, of Westport, Conn., and Eve, of Manhattan; two stepchildren, Nancy Rommelmann, of Portland, Ore., and Christopher Rommelmann, of Brooklyn; a grandson, and a stepgranddaughter.

“I might want to be critical, but I don’t wish to be destructive,” Mr. Levine once said, explaining his outlook on both art and life. “Caricature that goes too far simply lowers the viewer’s response to a person as a human being.”

December 26, 2009

Broken Arrow

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

(Beneath are two posts to the Marxism mailing list from this morning. The first is mine and the second is by Hunter Bear, a long time civil rights and indigenous rights activist.)

Just stumbled across this 1950 movie about the Apache wars in Texas on  AMC. It stars James Stewart as Tom Jeffords, a real-life character who  tried to negotiate peace and resisted white encroachment for the most  part. Cochise is played by Jeff Chandler, a Brooklyn Jew originally  named Ira Grossel. Just what you’d expect, I guess.

I haven’t seen the movie for years, maybe not since the 1950s. But as it  progressed, it seemed fairly progressive, at least as compared to the  usual racist tripe from John Ford (despite, of course, their outstanding  quality in film terms.)

I just did a bit of research online and discovered that the script is by  Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10, who was in prison when the movie  was released. The movie screenwriting credit was Michael Blankfort’s, a  “front”.

Here’s some relevant info from the TCM website, a useful resource for  old movies of value:

After reviewing the final script draft of May 20, 1949, Darryl F.  Zanuck, Vice-President in charge of production, complained that Jeffords  was too “noble and untainted, so uncompromisingly lofty in his ideals”  and that it was unclear what “motivated him to go to Cochise in the  first place.” Zanuck commented that in recent films, a “too noble hero  is doomed at the box office.” In a meeting between Zanuck, Blaustein,  Blankfort and director Delmer Daves, it was decided to have Jeffords, in  the opening narration, state that he came to Apache country to look for  gold and that when he met up with the Indian boy, he was on his way back  to Tucson to take a job as a scout. In the narration, Jeffords explains  that he saved the boy’s life because “some crazy impulse made me do it.”  After the revised final script of June 11, 1949, the scene of the  attempted lynching of Jeffords was added following a meeting with  Zanuck, Blaustein and Blankfort.

In the 1991 Los Angeles Times article, Blaustein stated that he showed  Blankfort’s changes secretly to Maltz. The article states that Maltz was  in prison when Broken Arrow was released, serving time for failing to  cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and  that in 1952, after Blankfort testified before HUAC and mentioned names  of his ex-wife and cousin, while stating that he had no knowledge that  they had been members of the Communist party, Maltz refused ever to  speak to Blankfort again. Before he died, Blankfort wrote a letter to  the Writers Guild of America acknowledging that Maltz wrote Broken  Arrow, but died before he mailed it. Blaustein related that Maltz  preferred that the letter not be sent, but changed his mind a year after  Blankfort’s death and authorized writer Larry Ceplair to make his role  known. Maltz died in 1985, and in July 1991, the Writers Guild voted to  correct the screen credit for the film to reflect that Maltz wrote the  screenplay and to issue “a strong statement of appreciation for the  courage of screenwriter Michael Blankfort,” who by “fronting” risked  being blacklisted himself. Alfred Levitt, a blacklisted writer, brought  the issue before the board based on information received by Ceplair,  following talks with the wives of both writers and other principals. In  1992, the Writers Guild posthumously awarded Maltz the award that had  been given to Blankfort in 1950 for the best-written American western of  that year.


There’s an old Hollywood film which, when it’s occasionally run on television, I always see — sometimes in part, sometimes all the way through. It appeared this morning  It’s Broken Arrow [1950], the story of Tom Jeffords, a U.S. Army Scout who, in the Arizona territory of 1870, saw the Apaches as human beings, developed a friendship with a major Apache leader, Cochise, married a young Apache woman, and forged a kind of peace between Cochise and his people — and most of the Americans. The film follows the actual historical record with, all things considered, reasonable accuracy — but with the still common fictional modifications that characterize Hollywood’s treatment of many subjects.

But, to come quickly to the main point, Broken Arrow could be considered the first pro-Native film of widespread reach ever filmed by Hollywood.

Seen by today’s yardsticks, Broken Arrow could, I suppose, be viewed as simplistic, maybe even a little hokey. The lead Native figures are played by non-Indians:  Jeff Chandler as Cochise and Debra Paget as Sonseeahray — with whom Jeffords falls in love and marries via the Apache Way. [She is later killed by Anglo die-hards.]  Jimmy Stewart depicts Jeffords and Jay Silverheels [Mohawk] plays the dissident Geronimo.

Broken Arrow was filmed for the greatest part in the Oak Creek Canyon country, close by to Flagstaff, but in a much lower elevation.  It was one of the first films to be made in that beautiful area — and has been followed by countless others.  The other setting, purely secondary to Oak Creek, is the film town of Old Tucson near that then rather small [but not now] major city of the state.

The filming occurred mostly in 1949, while the Big Snow that had hit the high country [Flagstaff got 17 feet in two or three weeks and more followed] was beginning to melt.  A fair number of Navajo people were used in the film — something that almost immediately began to disturb the considerable racist Anglo component in Flagstaff.  When they learned, soon enough, that the film was really quite pro-Indian, they became increasingly vocal in their hostility. There was no violence, such as occurred in the making of Salt of the Earth in not-far-away southwestern New Mexico in 1953-54 — but the level of hostility at Flag was high.  This was much less true at well-integrated Flagstaff High where I was a keenly observant sophomore and, as the controversy went on, a junior.

[Will Geer, the Salt sheriff plays an Anglo rancher in Broken Arrow.  The main screen writer was Albert Maltz, black-listed in Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee and thus never credited for his fine work for Broken Arrow.  Geer was soon to become a black-list victim — and so was Salt of the Earth.]

In those days, Phoenix was a 12 hour drive from Flagstaff [now, sadly, it’s less than three], and the Hollywood film folk bought many supplies at Flagstaff.  That economic fact softened some — but only some  — of the pervasive hostility which reached the point of an effort to prevent the film, when it was completed, from playing in town.  When Broken Arrow was close to heading out to the world in 1950, it became known that it was scheduled to play forthwith at our primary theatre, The Orpheum. [The other movie house in town, Lyric, was a dive.]  Opponents of Broken Arrow, at Flag and environs, called on “white people” to boycott the movie.  At that point, Platt Cline, owner and editor of the daily paper, Arizona Daily Sun — and more than just a “moderate” on racial matters — ran an editorial suggesting that people simply see the film and draw their own conclusions.  He pointed out that Broken Arrow could be considered, in a very real sense, “our film” — since it involved Oak Creek country and Navajos.  That netted Platt, a good friend of my parents, quite a number of hostile letters,  He didn’t give a damn, printed some of them.

Flagstaff was pretty pervasively racist — one of the reasons our family lived in outlying parts.  It wasn’t the total segregation complex of the Deep South and there were interesting diversities that warrant a long article in their own right. The high school, as I’ve noted, was thoroughly integrated: Anglo, Chicano, Native, Black, Chinese.  There was a small Black elementary school.  Some restaurants served only Anglos and I remember outside signs, “No Indians Or Dogs Allowed”; a few also served Chicanos and Indians and Orientals; no mainline eating places served the small Black community which had, of course, developed its own places which would serve everyone.

The low-brow Lyric Theatre —  kind of awful in retropect — would serve anyone, sit wherever you wished.  The Orpheum had a large balcony where Blacks had to sit.  “Others”, whoever they were, could sit downstairs or in the balcony — whatever they wished.  On the other hand, most Chicanos and almost all Natives preferred to sit in the much friendlier balcony — where our family always sat and where the price was a bit lower and, frankly, the view much better.

Broken Arrow came to Flagstaff as scheduled — in its first release wave. I and my multi-ethnic group of buddies were there, almost at the head of the line.  We were far from the only ones.  The Orpheum was literally packed brimful — balcony and downstairs.  In the end, it played at Flag for a number of days — much longer than its original scheduling.

And it always drew bumper audiences.

As nearly as I and my family and my friends could tell, almost everyone in the throngs who viewed it, liked it very much — fascinated in many cases. And almost from the first showing onward, the bitterly hostile comments by the die-hards who would eventually die but never surrender, were muted, no longer public.

Broken Arrow didn’t turn Flag into the “beloved community” — not a chance of that — but it was a very significant step for everyone, and a source of considerable pride for Indian people.  Years later, in the ’60s, I gave a fairly long speech at Flagstaff which had changed somewhat for the better, still to this moment an on-going process.  My talk was well attended by a wide variety of people and, in the course of it, I mentioned Broken Arrow.  I was pleased that that struck a note of positive resonance with almost all adults present. They well recalled the hassle and its aftermath.

So when, as it occasionally does, appear on television — and I spot it — I always greet Broken Arrow with good words and thoughts, thank it, and wish it and our Cause, very well indeed.

Hunter [Hunter Bear]

HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR] Mi’kmaq /St. Francis  Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk  Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´  and Ohkwari’

Check out our Hunterbear website Directory http://hunterbear.org/directory.htm [The site is dedicated to our one-half Bobcat, Cloudy Gray:  http://hunterbear.org/cloudy_gray.htm

December 24, 2009

Invictus; Precious

Filed under: Africa,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

After watching “Invictus” and “Precious”, two heavy doses of racially inspirational hokum that should be thrown in the same bonfire as “Blind Side”, you really have to wonder if it is no coincidence that this junk is winding up in movie theaters in the first year of a “post-racial” White House. To one degree or another, all of these wretched movies harp on the notion of Black victimhood and the key role of white paternalism in “saving” Black people. And in each case, the audience is hoodwinked into believing that the movie is about the real world rather than some liberal fantasy.

Now that Clint Eastwood has made two movies in a row incorporating the preachy liberal values of Sidney Poitier movies like “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner”, I almost feel like circulating a petition urging him to return to his Dirty Harry ways. Just as was the case in “Grand Torino”, we have white people with racist pasts being transformed like Paul on the road from Damascus. The path to racial harmony, we are led to believe, is people going through some kind of conversion rather than structural change. This is all the more galling when a movie is made about Mandela’s bid to win over South Africa’s privileged Afrikaner population by co-opting rugby, their favorite sport.

Based on a book by Independent reporter John Carlin, it tells the story of the Springbok’s victory over New Zealand in 1995. The movie is quite good at spelling out Mandela’s calculations that the team could “bring the country together”. Over the objections of his ANC deputies, he decides to attach his government’s reputation to their bid to win the world cup in more or less the same manner that Mayor Bloomberg or any other big city mayor would make sure to wear the insignias of a World Series-bound baseball team.

One can understand why the movie would leave out the unpleasant facts about why Black South Africans were so hostile to rugby since the inclusion of any scenes dramatizing the sordid past might have rendered director Eastwood’s Pollyanna vision unrealizable.

On June 24, 1995, the night that the South African team defeated New Zealand, South Africa’s Andrew Kenny wrote an article in the Age, an Australian daily, on “why I still hate rugby”:

My hatred of rugby was beaten into me at a village primary school near Cape Town, where we were terrorised by a rugby-worshipping Afrikaner schoolmaster. For Mr B, rugby, manhood and the destiny of the white races were inseparably linked. Any boy who did not play rugby was a “moffie” (a homosexual). pooftah, the word apparently derived from `hermaphrodite’).When one boy dared to bring a soccer ball to school, Mr B cut it up. When I left primary school at the end of 1960, the year of Sharpeville and a time when more and more black African countries were gaining independence, Mr B gave us his final homily. I remember it to this day.

The forces of darkness were descending upon us. Mr B drew an inverted triangle on the blackboard to represent Africa; he colored in the top three quarters to show it was lost to barbarism. He pointed to the bottom tip, a threatened promontory of civilisation. This was the citadel we must defend and the stage on which we must triumph. He, Mr B, would never quit. He would remain if he were the last white man left and, referring to the black hordes, he said, “I’ll strangle them with my bare hands!” If there was glory in fighting the savages until the end, the rugby field represented a field of greater glory yet, indeed of transcending glory.

In “Invictus”, there’s a scene that is so nakedly didactic that if it was read by a writing instructor in any of your better institutions of higher learning, it would be circled in red as needing a rewrite. As the rugby match is in progress, we see a couple of white cops in South Africa sitting in their car listening to the game that is in progress. When they spot a Black youth picking through litter near their car, they take steps to send him on their way but get caught up in the game. He lingers by their car and begins to follow the progress of the game with them. When South Africa finally wins, they hoist him on their shoulders and place one of their caps on his head. The message could not be clearer. A victory in sports healed the country’s wounds.

Leaving aside the bigger question of racial equality in South Africa, there is not much evidence that the Springboks themselves changed that much despite Mandela’s benediction in 1995.

In December of 2003, Rory Carroll filed a report in the Guardian about what was happening with the “enlightened” rugby team, including its one non-white player Chester Williams (in reality he is colored, but in “Invictus”, he played by a Black actor.)

For weeks the airwaves and headlines have been dominated by allegations that rugby, and by extension the Afrikaner community, remains deeply racist and that the euphoria of the 1995 World Cup victory and Nelson Mandela sporting a Springbok jersey was a sham. That behind the rainbow rhetoric, the old prejudices endure and that in their hearts apartheid’s masters have not changed. The controversy has flared on the eve of the World Cup, exposing the sport and the culture that underpins it to intense scrutiny just as South Africa prepares to meet England.

The picture that has emerged is not pretty. Hulking in the foreground is Geo Cronje, the 23-year-old lock and Springbok hopeful who triggered the current row by refusing to share a dormitory room with a black team-mate, Quinton Davids. Cronje, according to that favoured South African euphemism, is “conservative”, and he certainly looks the part, sporting a beard that evokes comparisons with a Boer commando or a 17th-century Dutch settler ancestor. He was expelled from the squad, but an internal investigation found no “conclusive evidence” that he shunned Davids on grounds of race.

In the ensuing brouhaha, the Springbok’s media manager, Mark Keohane, submitted a report to SA Rugby, the sport’s professional arm, alleging widespread racial intolerance, and quit his post, saying in a statement: “My decision to resign is a matter of conscience and a moral one as I can no longer be part of a squad in which prejudice is tolerated, wished away and excused.” Keohane’s report prompted the sport’s authorities to appoint a retired judge, Edwin King, to head an independent investigation into rugby at all levels, from school to country. Mud is expected to fly when hearings start next year.

If the 1991 merger of the white South African Rugby Board (SARB) and the non-racial, black-run South African Rugby Union (SARU) was a wedding, the honeymoon ended soon after the 1995 World Cup victory. The following year the Springboks selected a hooker [a rugby position, not a sex worker], Henry Tromp, who had been convicted of the manslaughter of a black farm labourer. Then the coach, Andre Markgraaff, resigned in tears after being secretly taped calling black administrators “Kaffirs”. In 1998 just four blacks were included among 120 players for a tournament, prompting a government- sponsored commission of inquiry and calls to renew the international boycott of the team.

A prop, Toks van der Linde, was sent home from a tour of New Zealand for calling a woman a Kaffir and two years ago nine members of the Noordelikes rugby club were implicated in the death of a black man on one of the player’s farms. Two were convicted of murder. Then last year Chester Williams, the black wing who was the pin-up of racial unity, revealed in his biography that he had been used. “The marketing men branded me a product of development and a sign of change. Nothing could have been more of a lie.”

Now that would have made for a much more interesting and a much more truthful movie. Chester Williams would have been a perfect symbol of how the ANC betrayed the hopes of the nation by allowing it to be used as willing tool of white capitalist interests. Ironically, Eastwood did seem to have a handle on this kind of manipulation when he made “Flags of Our Fathers” but in this era of racial feel-good politics, it would have been beyond him to challenge post-apartheid mythology.

Turning to “Precious”, we can at least say that the movie has more of a Black proprietorship than the white liberal “Invictus”. Sadly that proprietorship appears far more interested in catering to the prejudices of a middle class white audience than to get to the heart of racial oppression in the U.S. today.

Set in Harlem in the mid-1980s, “Precious” is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones, (Gabourey Sidibe) an obese Black teenager whose two children were the result of being raped by her father, who is absent from the household throughout the movie. Her mother Mary (Mo’Nique) is a welfare recipient whose life revolves around verbally and physically abusing her daughter and staring at television. If you’ve seen “Cinderella” or “Mommy Dearest”, you’ll recognize the material instantly.

Instead of a fairy godmother, Precious gets initial help from a white schoolteacher and social worker to help deliver her from a living hell. She starts attending an “alternative” school in Harlem and eventually moves out of her mother’s apartment. The moral of the story is that Black family life, especially in conditions of poverty, is dysfunctional to the core and in desperate need of outside intervention.

Much of “Precious” is as lurid as a John Waters movie, but without the yucks. Mary is constantly throwing things at Precious, including a television set in a climactic scene. Since people on welfare tend to rely on television as their sole means of entertainment, this was simply not to be believed. Even more astoundingly, Mary’s apartment is a duplex. Since television dramas and situation comedies tend to exaggerate the size and worth of apartments and homes in general, one cannot blame director Lee Daniels for doing anything except following boneheaded conventions.

Director Lee Daniels is a gay black man who was drawn to adapt the novel “Push” by Sapphire because its main character represented everything that offended him growing up, as he told the N.Y Times:

“Precious” is so not Obama. “Precious” is so not P.C. What I learned from doing the film is that even though I am black, I’m prejudiced. I’m prejudiced against people who are darker than me. When I was young, I went to a church where the lighter-skinned you were, the closer you sat to the altar. Anybody that’s heavy like Precious — I thought they were dirty and not very smart. Making this movie changed my heart. I’ll never look at a fat girl walking down the street the same way again.

While nobody would deny Mr. Daniels the right to make a movie about whatever turned him on, including a ritual expiation for past prejudices, he should be aware that the movie reinforces stereotypes other than about body size.

Put simply, “Precious” recycles Reagan-era bullshit about “welfare queens” that are not even slightly relevant to our present age, when aid to dependent children, the program that Precious’s mother benefited from, was abolished under President Clinton. Mary is a grotesque that could have been cooked up by David Duke on a day when he got up on the wrong side of the bed. In over 50 years of watching movies with Black people in the cast, I have not seen anything more one-sided and hateful since “Gone with the Wind”.

On a personal note, I first got involved with radical politics after working in Harlem for the welfare department in 1968. After seeing the plight of poor people for the first time in my life and facing the draft, I decided that the system was inherently unjust and had to be transformed.

The main impression I got from spending time with several dozen women trying to raise children on their own was that of unstinting patience and generosity. There was not a single reported instance of child abuse and, to the contrary, the mothers were reported as being fierce defenders of their children’s right to enjoy a decent life no matter how poor they were.

The main threat to the children was not from the parents, but from the horrible conditions of slum life that were forced on them, from rat bites to a lack of steam heat in the winter months. As the schools were also rotten, the dropout rate far exceeded that of more privileged neighborhoods, a reality that has not changed.

It is very likely that this movie would not have been made without funding by Oprah Winfrey who was drawn to the project for reasons not hard to fathom. As one of the richest women in America, she incorporates the Horatio Alger ethos that is shared by whites and Blacks alike. In an interview with U.S. News, Winfrey stated:

I am never not aware of who I am, where I’ve come from–and what it took for me to give back. I am a colored girl born in Mississippi in 1954 and all that that means: poverty, isolation, discrimination, deprivation, lack of information, low self-esteem. The expectation for me was to work in white people’s kitchens. I am here because I have walked across the backs of people who made this way for me. That’s in everything that I do. I’m black and I’m female and . . . I find strength and honor in that. My responsibility is not just to myself.

Of course, her responsibility to others is not measured in the traditional manner of the civil rights movement but in handing out automobiles to her studio audience. In 2004, she gave 276 Pontiacs to the lucky people who showed up that day. For only 7 million dollars, she got publicity that was worth its weight in gold.

For those who worked for Pontiac, the picture is not so bright. This division of General Motors was liquidated as part of President Obama’s restructuring and many more African-American workers will end up with the shitty end of the stick than Oprah’s audience. Indeed, there is little likelihood that either Oprah or Obama will have much of an impact on these peoples’ lives:

Nearly half of Detroit’s workers are unemployed
Analysis shows reported jobless rate understates extent of problem
Mike Wilkinson / The Detroit News

Despite an official unemployment rate of 27 percent, the real jobs problem in Detroit may be affecting half of the working-age population, thousands of whom either can’t find a job or are working fewer hours than they want.

Using a broader definition of unemployment, as much as 45 percent of the labor force has been affected by the downturn.

And that doesn’t include those who gave up the job search more than a year ago, a number that could exceed 100,000 potential workers alone.

“It’s a big number, and we should be concerned about it whether it’s one in two or something less than that,” said George Fulton, a University of Michigan economist who helps craft economic forecasts for the state.

Mayor Dave Bing recently raised eyebrows when he said what many already suspected: that the city’s official unemployment rate was as believable as Santa Claus. In Washington for a jobs forum earlier this month, he estimated it was “closer to 50 percent.”

December 23, 2009

Iraq war veteran speaks out

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 9:05 pm

Avatar; Star Trek

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:29 pm

“Avatar” is a visually spectacular entertainment with a broadly anti-imperialist message. Who could ask for more, especially when most Hollywood blockbusters are such sorry messes nowadays? When my colleagues in NYFCO named it best picture of the year, I wrote: “Apparently this is some kind of anti-imperialist parable. I wonder what would have made James Cameron develop such a movie–leaving aside the question whether he has the ability to hit the target. More later.” Well, later is now.

With a plot that owes much to “Dances with Wolves” and the far superior “Emerald Forest”, this is a movie that champions the cause of indigenous peoples on a distant planet called Pandora in the distant future. Despite being in the distant future, not much has changed in terms of how imperialism deals with indigenous peoples. A multinational (multiplanetary, actually) mining company is running amok on Pandora, digging up an ore called Unobtainium. As it turns out, that term has a hoary past that long predated James Cameron’s movie as the wiki article indicates.

Engineers have long (since at least the 1950s) used the term unobtainium when referring to unusual or costly materials, or when theoretically considering a material perfect for their needs in all respects save that it doesn’t exist. By the 1990s, the term was widely used, including in formal engineering papers such as Towards unobtainium [new composite materials for space applications].

The word unobtainium may well have been coined within the aerospace industry to refer to materials capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures expected in reentry. Aerospace engineers are frequently tempted to design aircraft which require parts with strength or resilience beyond that of currently available materials.

Since the planet is inhabited by 9 feet tall blue people called the Na’vi armed with bows and arrows who don’t exactly appreciate their territory being despoiled by profiteers, the mining corporation has recruited a Blackwater type military force to defend their interests.

One of the ex-servicemen who have just been rocketed into Pandora is the star of the movie, a former Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who like so many returning from Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years has lost the use of his legs in combat. His disability does not prevent him from being used in an “Avatar”, a Na’vi body derived from their genes that can host Sully’s mind when he is asleep in a special chamber. His first encounter inside the Avatar is a liberating experience as he not only recovers the use of his legs, but enjoys the powerful physical abilities of these gifted creatures.

Sully becomes a secret agent for the mercenaries at the urging of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the movie’s villain who repeats the kind of stale formulae about defeating the insurgents heard from Generals reporting to George W. Bush and more recently to Barack Obama. The other chief villain is the mining company’s on-site manager Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) who will remind you of the Paul Reiser character in James Cameron’s “Aliens”, another rousing entertainment. Reiser played a sleazy corporate hack who sought to bring back a monster to earth that could be used to breed living weapons of mass destruction.

Eventually, Sully falls in love with a Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who has been assigned by her tribe to train him in their ways. When the mining company and the mercenaries conspire to destroy the Na’vi’s habitat in order to expropriate their wealth, Sully switches sides and becomes a guerrilla warrior fighting on behalf of native peoples and Mother Nature.

I use the words “her tribe” advisedly since there is very little attempt made to distinguish the Na’vi from the American Indians who were exterminated by the millions in order to pave the way for the growth of the modern multinational corporation. They wear loincloths, use the bow and arrow, and the men wear what appears Mohawk (Kanienkeh) haircuts. When out on a hunt with them, Sully observes a warrior giving thanks to an animal that he has just shot with an arrow. This is a behavior associated with bison hunting on the Great Plains, of course.

Since so much of the movie’s appeal was to be linked with its rainforest-like backdrop, filled with exotic flora and fauna that were figments of the movie’s artistic/technical team’s gifted imagination, it was a natural choice for filming in 3D. Put succinctly, the experience of seeing the movie in 3D is one of the more thrilling experiences I have had in a movie theater in quite some time. Credit must be given to James Cameron for using this technique, because it helps to realize his vision of an unspoiled environment under threat from corporate predators. In some ways, the opulent landscapes and the exotic creatures that populate them hearken back to Walt Disney’s Fantasia, another movie that celebrated the power of the visual imagination.

I am old enough to remember Hollywood’s last foray into 3D. When I was 10 years old or so, there was one 3D movie after another landing in our local theaters. Just as was with the case in “Avatar”, you had to wear special glasses to get the effect. A wiki article on 3D movies states that 1952-1955 were the “golden years” of 3D. Three of them I remember vividly. In “Man in the Dark”, there was a brain surgery intended to remove the main character’s “criminal instincts”. There’s nothing like the sight of a scalpel coming directly into your forehead to creep out any 10 year old. In “Fort Ti” (Ticonderoga), the Mohawk Indians—unlike the Na’vi—were bad guys. A highlight of the movie was a tomahawk coming straight at you, a gimmick used repeatedly. Finally, there was the classic “House of Wax” that made you feel like you were inside the burning museum in the garish climax.

“Avatar” is nothing like these cheap thrills. At the risk of sounding like a PR agent for James Cameron, this was a movie that never once used 3D other than in the way it was intended—or should be intended. Namely, to recreate a real world that has depth and complexity. Since the world is imaginary to begin with, the only way to describe this experience is how Marianne Moore once described poetry: “imaginary gardens with real toads”.

A brief word about David Walsh’s review of “Avatar” that appeared in today’s World Socialist website. Although I genuinely admire Walsh, I have to take exception to his review which boils down to disappointment that the movie was not more like “Burn”, for example. He complains:

That [the movie’s rousing climax] is not enough, however, to make up for the film’s fatal artistic and psychological weaknesses. A work of art makes a difference to the extent that it brings out what is not obvious, and encourages a critical attitude toward conventional thoughts and emotions.

Asking James Cameron to create a “work of art” is an unrealistic expectation. It would be like asking Stephen King to write a complex psychological study set in an urban milieu (although he has made such attempts, usually with mixed results.) Cameron is an unabashed entertainer and should be judged on that criterion alone. From this critic’s perspective, a harsher judge of Hollywood most of the time than Walsh, the movie succeeds.

Speaking of success or the lack thereof, I want to conclude with some words about “Star Trek”, the 2009 movie that attempted to provide a back story on the origin of the characters in the spirit of “Batman Begins”.

Unlike “Avatar”, this is an elaborately plotted screenplay with frequent flashbacks. Additionally, it involves the heavy use of exposition which is meant to fill in the details of a story burdened by the sort of time travel beloved by Star Trek writers. Keeping track of what phase of the time warp you are in becomes as much of a chore as reading Heidegger.

What gave Star Trek movies and the TV show so much charm in the past was their refusal to take themselves too seriously and to use their stories set in outer space in the distant future as a way to provide wry commentary on current events. As quintessential 1960s pop culture, the William Shatner/Leonard Nimoy vintage took up issues of xenophobia, class oppression, warfare, etc. in terms of the liberal humanism of the show’s creator, Gene Rodenberry.

There is no humor, nor is there social commentary in J.J. Abrams’s movie. It is basically a revenge tale involving Romulans and Mr. Spock, the Vulcan who has inadvertently destroyed their planet. The bulk of the movie consists of elaborately orchestrated battles between the starship Enterprise and the Romulan craft which I found tedious in the extreme. They have a mindless milling character associated with video games and movies such as “The Transformers”. After an hour or so of space ships firing on each other, I began to fog out.

Abrams is best known for his ABC television series “Lost”, which also involved byzantine plotting and the overuse of flashbacks. He is also the producer of “Cloverfield”, a movie widely regarded as utter garbage.

Not recommended.

“Marxists” for Obama

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 2:22 pm

In some cases even people who call themselves Marxists have run to Obama’s whistle. Last November, Carl Davidson, a former Sixties Maoist turned “Marxist” Web-master of “Progressives for Obama,” wrote a widely circulated essay claiming that Obama’s victory in the presidential election was “a major victory” for left progressives. Badly misusing the terminology of the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, Davidson claimed that the Obama administration represented the rise of “an emerging historic counter-hegemonic bloc” containing elements of Marxian/proletarian “class struggle.” He strained the bounds of credulity by claiming that the new Obama presidency represented a decisive break with both neoliberalism and corporate liberalism and that the new White House was torn by a major tension between forces representing the capitalist class’s “old hydrocarbon sector” and forces representing a progressive new left-leaning “green sector.” As the left journalist Arun Gupta quipped, “Obama must have missed Davidson’s memo,” for the Obama White House had committed to spending $1 trillion a year on the Pentagon but just a “few billion on green jobs, mainly as subsidies to big corporations like the big three [automakers].”

Last January, United for Peace and Justice leader and top U.S. Communist Party official Judith LeBlanc actually called President Obama’s appointment of Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan last January “an exciting moment for the peace movement, because its possible diplomacy will be the first step…It’s incredibly important that the antiwar movement reach out to this envoy,” LeBlanc said, “and speak directly to the White House about our concerns.” This was remarkable commentary given Holbrooke’s rather unsavory history as a leading U.S. foreign policy operative and commentator over the years – a record that included critical support (in his role as Under-Secretary of State for Asian Affairs in the Carter administration) for Indonesia’s U.S.-supported atrocities (bordering on genocide) against East Timor in 1975, promising (in his role as Bill Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans) immunity to Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic (according to Karadzic himself and to former Bosnian foreign minister Mohammad Sacirbey), helping lead (in his role as special envoy to Kosovo) the “diplomatic” charge to the U.S. bombing of Serbia in 1999, providing Democratic support for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and serving as a pro-war foreign policy advisor to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. As Holbrooke took up his appointment with a ringing endorsement from the Communist Party’s LeBlanc, a left U.S. newspaper reported that “Angry protesters gathered in Mehtarlam, capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Laghman Province, to protest deaths of at least 16 civilians in a U.S. raid on a village Jan. 23. The same day, across the border in western Pakistan, a senior Pakistani official said two U.S. missile attacks may have killed up to 100 civilians. In Washington, administration officials refused to answer whether President Obama had okayed the missile strikes.”

full: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/23434

December 22, 2009

Ralph Nader: From W. to Obama, a Seamless Transition on the War

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

December 21, 2009

Three animated movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

“Coraline” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, two of the animated features I received this year from Hollywood PR departments, were outstanding. The other, titled “9” after the eponymous main character, a robot so numbered, was a total mess. I nominated “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” for best animated feature of 2009, a choice that my NYFCO colleagues agreed with. If I had received “Coraline” in time to view before the December meeting, I might have named it instead since it was so visually striking and psychologically complex. In any case, if you have children or feel like a child yourself, I urge you to rent “Coraline” from Netflix and look for “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” which should be available before long.

“Coraline” is the name of the main character, a preteen girl who is alienated from her parents. In some ways, the dysfunctional relationship evokes that of the family in “Beetlejuice”, even with a haunted house thrown into the mix. Coraline discovers that a doorway in her house leads to a parallel universe version of her reality-based house, equipped with an alternative mother and father who look and sound exactly like her own but cater to her every whim and make her feel special.

The doorway, which functions more or less in the same way as the wardrobe closet in “The Chronicles of Narnia”, allows her to spend time with her surrogate parents and then to return each night to her own bed. And each time that she returns to the real world, the more disappointed she becomes in that reality. Like the teenaged girl in “Beetlejuice”, Coraline seems poised to leave the real world behind her and join the world of the spirits.

That opportunity presents itself one day when her alternative mother explains that she can remain with her permanently if she only does one thing, namely to replace her real eyes with sewn-on buttons. If her new adopted haunted home has all the allure of a dollhouse, why would she then object to being turned into a doll?

After she refuses the offer, her new mother morphs into a demon and takes her real parents hostage. The remainder of the film consists of a struggle to free her parents as well as the souls of children who after accepting the demon’s offer were turned into ghost/toys with button eyes. The prevailing mood is very close to that of “Pan’s Labyrinth” with the same kind of visually arresting imagery and odd mixture of menace and wonder.

“Coraline” is based on a young adult novel by Neil Gaiman, an interesting character based on the evidence of his biography at his website. We learn:

Gaiman was the creator/writer of monthly cult DC Comics horror-weird series, Sandman, which won nine Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, including the award for best writer four times, and three Harvey Awards. Sandman #19 took the 1991 World Fantasy Award for best short story, making it the first comic ever to be awarded a literary award. Norman Mailer said of Sandman: “Along with all else, Sandman is a comic strip for intellectuals, and I say it’s about time.”

Directed by Wes Anderson, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the tale of a recidivist fox who cannot give up the life of stealing chickens even as his wife pressures him to go straight. In a perfect casting touch, the voice of Mr. Fox is done by George Clooney who is basically reprising the role he played in the Danny Oceans movies directed by Steven Soderbergh.

The movie has the generally madcap character of a Bug Bunny cartoon with three human chicken farmers doing everything they can to capture the fox and destroy his lair. Eventually the vendetta grows to include all of the local animals who become willy-nilly linked to the fox. Despised by the farmers as much as any jihadist is by the Pentagon, they only seek a return to normalcy. It is understandable that they would resent the fox whose appetite for chickens has brought down the farmer’s wrath on their heads.

Both “Coraline” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”  rely on “stop motion”, a technique that uses actual physical objects being moved in small increments while being filmed. Director Wes Anderson first used it in portions of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, a film I have not seen.

One of the refreshing things about this movie is its tendency to avoid moralizing, a fault of the Disney and Pixar films. Indeed, the unabashed desire of the fox to kill and eat chickens almost seems like a nose-thumbing exercise directed against animal rights advocates. The movie has a kind of anarchistic joie d’vivre that will remind you of the Chuck Jones Warner Brothers movies of the past. All in all, a pure delight.

“The Fantastic Mr. Fox” is based on a children’s novel by Roald Dahl who died in 1990. Dahl also wrote “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, two children’s stories adapted for the screen. He also wrote many works geared to adults, including a short story called “The Smoker” that I first encountered as an adaptation on the Alfred Hitchcock television show in 1960. It was one of the most chilling dramas I ever saw on this classic series.

“The Smoker” involves a bet between two men who meet each other at a Caribbean island resort hotel, one of whom—the smoker—has just lit a cigarette with his Zippo lighter at the poolside. The other man makes him an offer. If he can successfully light the Zippo 10 times in a row, he will give him his Cadillac convertible that is parked in the hotel’s lot. (Remember, it is 1960 when such cars still had charisma.) And what happens if he fails? Simple. He has to forfeit a finger. The two retreat to the Cadillac owner’s hotel room where the Zippo owner’s hand is tied to a table. With the other hand, he begins to use the Zippo as the other man stands over him with a meat cleaver. When he is just about to make the 10th attempt, a woman bursts into the room and yells out, “Stop this immediately. My brother is insane. He makes these bets but has nothing of value to relinquish if he loses. That Cadillac in the parking lot, which I imagine he used in the bet, does not belong to him. It belongs to me.” The story ends with the camera panning in on her left hand, which is missing three fingers.

There’s not much to say about “9”, except that it is heavily derivative of the Terminator and Matrix series as well as other post-apocalyptic tales in which malevolent and intelligent machines have taken over the world.

Unlike these other stories, there are no human beings left in “9”. All you have are the robots, who are human-like in their hopes and fears, and the killer machines. The movie begins with “9” being saved from destruction by “2”, who eventually is captured himself.

I wish I could tell you more about the robot characters, who we are supposed to identify with, but the screenwriter has failed to develop them. Indeed, there is very little dialog in the movie which is devoted almost exclusively to set pieces involving death-ray emitting killer machines versus the cute little robots about whom we know nearly nothing. It is a little bit like watching a love movie involving toasters.

December 20, 2009

The White Ribbon

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 8:59 pm

Michael Haneke’s latest movie “The White Ribbon”, which opens this December at theaters everywhere, received my vote for best foreign film in 2009. Shot in black-and-white, it is the study of social relations in a German farming village on the eve of WWI. Nominally, a “whodunit” about a spate of incomprehensibly gratuitous violent crimes, it is much more of an attempt on Haneke’s part to understand the rise of fascism in Germany. Despite his claim that the movie is more generally about authoritarianism, it serves—at least for this viewer—as the artistic counterpart of Arno Mayer’s groundbreaking “The Persistence of the Old Regime”. For both Mayer and Haneke, the persistence of feudal relationships not only explains WWI, but the rise of fascism and WWII as well. Although Nazism is most associated with the motto Kinder, Küche, Kirche, “The White Ribbon” illustrates that these values had deep roots in German society. And Haneke’s main goal is to show their underlying perverse realities.

Unlike any film I have seen in years, “The White Ribbon” has the dimensions of a novel. The farming village is a kind of self-contained world in which each character’s path crosses with another, often fatally. The instruments of death ironically are very likely the children of the village’s Protestant pastor and their classmates in the local school. Early on the film, we seem them walking in a kind of procession down the main street. With their starched collars and corn-silk blond hair, they give the impression of angels. The more we see of them, however, the more we are reminded of “The Village of the Damned”.

The first crime in the movie is against the village doctor, who is spilled from his horse when it runs into a wire tied between two trees near his house. Immediately afterwards, we see two of the children emerge from the bushes.

However, this is not anything like “Village of the Damned”. Despite the fact that the police are eventually called from the outside to solve the crime spree, there is no final scene when a Lieutenant Colombo or Hercule Poirot reveals the killer. This is a function of Haneke’s determination to reveal the true crimes, which would never have been prosecuted in a German court for they ultimately uphold the values of Kinder, Küche, Kirche that the nation revered.

Three men symbolize the village’s warped ethos. At the top of the ladder is The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) who exemplifies Junker values. The villagers depend on him for their livelihood even when he is indifferent to their most basic needs. When the wife of one of his peasant hands falls to death in his sawmill (either from rotting floors or sabotage), her oldest son takes revenge in the best way known to him. During a harvest celebration paid for by the Baron, a kind of seasonal ritual going back perhaps a thousand years, he sneaks off to the Baron’s cabbage path and hacks it to pieces with his scythe. After he is caught, the Baron takes retribution by firing his father who then hangs himself in despair. In the feudal conditions of prewar Germany, labor markets in the countryside were as static as one of the levels in Dante’s Inferno.

Beneath the Baron is the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who is enough to turn anybody into an atheist. A rigidly authoritarian figure, especially to his own children, he decides to tie his teenaged son’s hands to the bed each night to prevent him from masturbating. The name of the movie originates from his decision to force his children to wear white ribbons as a reminder of their sins.

Finally, there is the Doctor (Rainer Bock, who played a Nazi general in “Inglourious Basterds”), who treats his long-time mistress, a midwife in his hire, as a piece of dirt. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he hurls invective at her in the course of explaining why he chooses not to screw her any longer. In the absence of the kind of physical violence that usually accompanies such a scene (face slaps, etc.), it reaches a far higher level of pain. His hatred for women is palpable.

Within this deranged universe, there is one voice of sanity. It is the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who provides voice over commentary throughout the film. He symbolizes the urbane enlightenment values that get trampled underfoot in this rural dungeon held together by the iron bars of Protestantism and Privilege.

In an interview that appears in the Winter 2009 Cineaste, director Haneke explains his purpose:

The screenplay for the film has already existed for ten years. And before the script was completed I had already spent quite a few years on developing the idea. It is difficult to name a specific impulse or point of origin. There is a risk of naming things retroactively, of rationalizing the biography, when the development of such a project always tends to be affected by many coincidences. What made a big impression on me was a documentary about Eichmann and his trial in Israel. I was stunned by this man, who completely lacked any conscience, and by his attempt at justification: that he was a dutiful civil servant, that he merely did his job for the benefit of the state, and that he was actually uncomfortable with the fact that he had to do what he did. This mentality dumbfounded me. This fanaticism–that people don’t realize what kinds of things they cause.

Italian fascism was not exactly funny either, but the justifications of its criminals show that it articulated itself in very different ways. In Germany, it was the absolute belief in the “right thing”–the National Socialist ideology of the “Volk”–as well as a certain ideology of efficiency, which already has a lot to do with Protestantism, particularly with Lutheranism. There is, of course, also the Protestantism of Thomas Münzer, which was different, closer to communism. Lutheran Protestantism has always very much identified itself with authority.

While Haneke clearly intended the schoolteacher to be the character audiences would most clearly identify with, we are left with the conclusion that he was odd man out in pre-WWI Germany. This was a society soaked in feudal backwardness even as it was home to some of the most advanced industrial technologies in the world and a large socialist movement.

Turning to Arno Mayer’s “The Persistence of the Old Regime”, we discover why this was the case. It was rooted in the material reality of class relations. Germany, like most of Europe including even Britain, had never made a clean break with the powerful agrarian aristocracy.

Mayer makes the economics behind this quite clear. While Germany had the reputation, even deservedly so, as an industrial powerhouse, no more than 15 percent of the population was employed in the capital goods sector (steel, machine tools, etc.) Meanwhile, the landed aristocracy enjoyed enormous power through its vast holdings. A mere 3000 individuals owned some 15 percent of Germany’s arable land. Around the turn the turn of the century, more than 60 percent of the active work force was farm hands like those depicted in “The White Ribbon”.

Even as the new industrial bourgeoisie was in the ostensible position to assert itself, it was habitually appropriating the symbols and values of the feudal classes. Mayer writes:

Indeed, not only in Prussia but throughout Germany the nonagrarian economic elites and their retainers in the free professions never sought or found an autonomous social, cultural, and political ground from which to challenge the old society. The new men of exceptional wealth and talent fervently solicited or accepted the imperial and noble seal. In particular during the half-century preceding 1914, the “enriched bourgeois” systematically pressed their procurement of titles that legitimized “their connection with the dominant class and . . . adapted the new social forces to the old aristocratic environment,” thereby also “reinvigorating” the formerly hostile nobility with “new blood and new economic energy.” With equal effectiveness and greater frequency the new capitalists, after appropriating the aristocratic life-style, propelled their sons to become reserve officers, to join dueling fraternities, and to marry into the old society. This social climbing, including the ennobling marriages of daughters, never really waned. Nor was it dismissed as either ludicrous or eccentric. In fact, it may be said to have intensified with the atrophy of liberalism before 1914.

Interestingly enough, few reviewers or even Haneke himself makes the connection between “The White Ribbon” and American society today with its nonstop eruptions of small town idiocy, symbolized by Sarah Palin and the tea-baggers. Perhaps if the movie had been released during the Bush presidency, more commentators would have made the connection. Ironically, it has been Obama’s failure to take on these retrograde forces on that has emboldened him. Like the bourgeois elites of Arno Mayer’s fin de siècle Germany, Obama seems more intent on honoring the remnants of feudalism, including Saudi sheikhs and Japanese royalty. What Mayer refers to as the “atrophy of liberalism” is something of a chronic condition in the body politic.

In the final analysis, many of America’s problems stem from the “persistence of the old regime” here as well. When the U.S. ruling class had the opportunity to extirpate the landed gentry in the South, it lost its nerve during Reconstruction and allowed the Deep South to remain as a bastion against democratic rule and enlightenment values. The fight to preserve the flag of Dixie on State Capitol buildings throughout the South, and the failure of the Democrats to move forcefully on this issue, shows how persistent the old regime can be.

Ultimately the German working class gathered the social power and the self-confidence to challenge the old regime, but lost out to the fascists because of an inept leadership. While nobody can predict the pace of the class struggle in the U.S. and whether such a showdown will emerge in the near future, we can certainly understand and must act on the urgent need to develop a political leadership among working people that can confront our native would-be Adolph Hitlers.

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