Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2013

The decline and fall of Levi-Strauss

Filed under: economics,fashion — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

No, I am not talking about the French anthropologist who applied structuralism to indigenous societies. Rather it is the blue jean company that has fallen upon hard times, much to my dismay. I imagine that after posting this and the one on Barneys yesterday, this will be the last I have to say on the rag trade for some time to come.

After going from a 34 waist to a 31, I have had to replace my trousers some of which were over 10 years old including a pair of Levi’s 501 blue jeans. I have had a pair of such jeans going back to 1961 in my freshman year at Bard College when upperclassmen advised me that they were “cool”. They have a button fly and shrink a size or two after the first washing. The material was like stiff and heavy canvas when it first came off the shelf but softened and faded most pleasingly after about a dozen cycles through the washing machine.

Unfortunately the 501 jeans Levi-Strauss sells today have nothing in common with my original pair except the name. The material is thinner and cheap looking. They are also prewashed. The upside is that you don’t have to worry about shrinkage. The downside is that they look like crap.

If you go to Amazon.com, you will find the “most helpful critical review” of the Levi’s 501 jeans:

Real 501’s are made of 14 oz canvas-like material. These “Iconic Rigid” jeans are made of some sleazy, much lighter material that takes on a carefully contrived set of wrinkles to make them look like they’d been worn to bed soaking wet and dried out overnight. If you want real 501’s stay away from these. I sent mine back right away.


Before revealing how this state of affairs came to be, a look at the roots of this garment manufacturer would be useful.

Levi Strauss (the first name is generally a last name in Jewry, it means a member of a priestly caste) was a German Jew who launched his blue jean company in 1853 out of San Francisco. The jeans were actually pioneered by a Latvian Jewish tailor named Jacob Davis who purchased denim from Levi Strauss. When the miners and other hardscrabble men who bought pants from Davis kept coming back to have them patched, he came up with the idea of reinforcing them with copper rivets at the points of maximum stress like the pockets corners. As is often the case in design, functionality and beauty are joined at the hip.

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Although they started out as work clothes like the Carhartt brand, they became a fashion statement in the 30s and 40s with the growing popularity of dude ranches. The look became popular in Hollywood films, with James Dean in “Giant” being representative.

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As well as Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”.

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By the time I got to Bard College, Levi jeans had become popular among the early 60s hipsters—most of whom were strongly influenced stylistically by the beat generation. Bob Dylan wore Levi’s.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.49.54 AMRapidly approaching my 69th birthday, I suppose I seem a bit foolish trying to dress in the same style I had adopted in 1961 but then again I remain attached inexplicably to the habits of my youth, including Marxism. It looks like I will be wed to Marxism for as long as I live but unfortunately the Levi 501 jeans will go by the wayside.

So what happened? This article puts it altogether:

The Guardian, Sunday 3 June 2007
Story of the blues
By Hadley Freeman

Levi’s was the original denim brand. In 1873, Jacob Davis, a tailor, hooked up with Levi Strauss to create a special pair of trousers for a woodcutter that were strong enough to hold in his bloated stomach. But things have come a long way since then and many industry observers say Levi’s has failed to keep pace.

Since 1996, the company’s sales have been dropping fast. It has lost billions of dollars in sales, closed dozens of factories and laid off nearly half of its workforce because, competitors say, it failed to take advantage of the change in the denim market when jeans shifted from being seen as a work garment to a style statement. Jonny Sorensen, the chief executive of Von Dutch, one of the denim brands Levi’s is suing, told the New York Times: “[Levi’s] missed the boat. Now they want to make a lot of noise and scare people away.”

Calvin Klein introduced the concept of designer denim back in 1978, and Helmut Lang upped the ante two decades later by giving his jeans designer prices. But it wasn’t until the late 90s, with the emergence of Earl jeans from California, that the denim craze truly took hold. This label shifted people’s perceptions of jeans: no longer were they chunky workman wear but a sexy item that showed off a woman’s figure. In Earl’s first year, it had a turnover of $600,000. In its second, sales rose to $10m. In 2001 the company was sold for roughly $86m. “A woman now needs a different pair for every occasion, just like shoes: some days you want a sexy pair, other days you want to be more relaxed and slouchy,” says Suzanne Pendlebury, womenswear buyer for Harvey Nichols.

But the emphasis here is on “new”: jeans are not what they once were – baggy, frumpy, clumpy – and the mid-priced classic brands, such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler, have struggled in the new marketplace. They have been squeezed out between, on the one hand, the flashier designer brands and, on the other, the cheap ranges offered in supermarkets and on the high street. Topshop’s Baxter jeans, for example, sell 18,000 pairs a week. Both the top and the bottom ends of the market have focused on denim’s new fashion-based image. Lee and Wrangler, on the other hand, have struggled with stagnating sales. Last year, Levi’s ended an eight-year fall in sales but it is still trying to recoup its losses from its period of what Onda describes as “steep decline” in the late 1990s.

Full: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2007/jun/04/fashion.retail

Levi-Strauss’s collapse raises all sorts of interesting questions about the commodity. Here is a product that underwent no significant changes since its birth around 150 years ago. It began to die in the marketplace as soon as people like Calvin Klein began to market blue jeans as a fashion item rather than a workaday garment (even though it did have its own esthetic.)

To what extent are there real benefits in style changes? Also, what was the role of such a “proletarian”, no-frills garment in destabilizing societies that were based on the rejection of commodity fetishism? The Levi-Strauss website recounts the role of their product in the Cold War:

Back (Then) in the U.S.S.R.


Russia – part of the former Soviet Union – is a fairly new market for Levi’s® jeans, but the company and the brand actually visited that country more than fifty years ago.

In 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to increase cultural contact between the two countries in order to ease tensions between the Cold War rivals.  The agreement stated that exhibits are “an effective means of developing mutual understanding,” and both nations agreed to host exhibitions from the other country. In 1959 the United States Information Agency coordinated the American National Exhibition which was sent to Moscow. Vice President Richard Nixon opened the Exhibition on July 25. (Remember the Kitchen Debate?)

Included in the displays of American culture, science, and technology was a good- sized booth created by Levi Strauss & Co., filled with displays of 501® jeans and Western-themed advertising. Staffers wore jeans and cowboy shirts, and 501® jeans were also worn by entertainers hired to treat the crowds to some down home American music.

Although jeans were frowned upon by Soviet officials as symbols of decadence and western imperialism, the products on display had to be replaced almost daily. Why? As explained then by the international press service R&F Features, “Eager Soviet visitors handled – and occasionally helped themselves to – display samples of the all-American denim pants.”

Levi’s® jeans were a coveted, but forbidden capitalist item in the Soviet Union for the next thirty years. Then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Russian citizens could buy “real” (not black market) Levi’s® jeans for the very first time.

The LS&CO. Archives has a letter from one such happy customer, a woman named Larisa Popik, who wrote us in August of 1991:

A man hasn’t very much happy minutes in his life, but every happy moment remains in his memory for a long time. I’m not the fanatic of clothes, but the buying of Levi’s jeans (501) is one of such moments in  my life.  I’m 24, but while wearing your jeans I feel myself like a 15-years-school-girl, I feel myself like a graceful, slender and beautiful girl. 

Thank you very much for such comfortable, soft, light and nice jeans. Good luck to your kind and necessary business!

So, Levi 501 jeans—a vanguard fighter for capitalist restoration—now falls victim to the very process it seemed contrary to.

Maybe there’s hope for Levi’s in filling a niche for those wealthy enough to purchase jeans that perhaps allude to their birth in a place totally the opposite of where they are sold now: Barneys.

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October 28, 2013

Barneys bigotry

Filed under: economics,fashion — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

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Published by billionaire Mort Zuckerman, a diehard member of the Israel lobby, the New York Daily News has been evolving into a fairly hard-hitting “anti-racist” publication, to use the term that has come under close scrutiny in the recent past by people such as Adolph Reed. If you go to their website, you will see for example an item on the disgusting Trayvon Martin “costume” worn at a Florida Halloween party. Juan Gonzalez, Amy Goodman’s co-host at Democracy Now, has been writing a column at the News for years now. So, in general, this is a paper that is more liberal in some ways than the NY Times that has not had an African-American op-ed columnist since Bob Herbert left some years ago. Charles Blow does have a column that appears on Saturday but it is fairly narrowly focused on polling and demographics.

The News broke the story on a young Black man being racially profiled by Barneys, the upscale clothing store that I used to patronize in the 1980s when I worked on Wall Street.

The clothing store Barneys purports to cater to a certain class of person, one so chic and so monied as to be eager to spend $280 on a pair of jeans or $2,850 on a skimpy woman’s “bicolor jacket.”

Apparently, in Barneys’ view, this class of person did not extend to a young, black New York City male who took a flier on buying a $300 Ferragamo belt. Trayon Christian says store security had him busted by the NYPD.

Christian is a 19-year-old New York College of Technology engineering student who lives in Queens. He has a work-study job that deposits his pay directly into a Chase bank account.

After picking out the belt, he offered his Chase debit card for payment. This was a transaction of a kind that happens thousands of times a day at Barneys’ Madison Ave. flagship emporium.

Without incident, the trendy from neighborhoods like the upper East Side make their picks and flash their cards as if this is where they belong . But not Christian, who has filed suit charging that Barneys concluded, based on skin color, that his money was stolen.

Christian says that, after presenting his debit card, he complied with a request for identification, completed the purchase and walked out, only to be stopped by plainclothes NYPD cops, who said that Barneys had called, accusing him of using a fake card.

In Christian’s telling, he was handcuffed and spent two hours in the 19th Precinct stationhouse while cops verified that he was who he said he was and that the money was his to spend.

The incident has had ramifications in a city polarized around the question of racial profiling. Bill de Blasio, certain to be the next mayor, has called for the abolition of “stop and frisk”, a practice that targets Blacks and Latinos disproportionately.

It has put Jay Z, the rapper businessman, on the spot:

Jay-Z — under increasing pressure to back out of a collaboration with the luxury store Barneys New York after it was accused of racially profiling two black customers — said Saturday he’s being unfairly “demonized” for just waiting to hear all of the facts.

The rap mogul made his first statement about the controversy in a posting on his website. He has come under fire for remaining silent as news surfaced this week that two young black people said they were profiled by Barneys after they purchased expensive items from their Manhattan store.

My last big-ticket purchase at Barneys was a 700-dollar Armani suit that I bought just a few months before losing my job at Goldman Sachs in 1988. It, along with my Paul Stuart suits, went to a thrift shop about a year after I began working at Columbia University. Don’t ask me why I wasted my money on such commodities. Temporary insanity, I guess.

The story of Barneys’s transformation over the years is one that is very much connected to those taking place in New York City generally, as it has become much more of a FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) center as well as a haven first for Eurotrash and more recently for the offspring of Russian oligarchs and oil sheikhs.

The store is named after Barney Pressman, a Jew who launched it in 1923 at 7th avenue and 17th street with the $500 he got from hocking his wife’s engagement ring. He got started in what New Yorkers call the rag trade working in his father’s clothing store, pressing trousers 3 cents a pair.

Early on, Barneys catered to less than wealthy men who wanted to buy a prestigious brand like Hickey-Freeman or Oxxford that were bought wholesale at odd lots and auctions. Often the customer would ask for the Barneys label to be removed so as to leave open where the suit was purchased. At the time Saks 5th Avenue had a lot more clout than Barneys.

In the 1960s the store was transformed into a snooty boutique under the stewardship of Fred Pressman, the owner’s son. As prosperity became generalized in the long postwar expansion, New Yorkers had more money to burn. Barneys’s original location expanded to five floors and a new store was launched on 61st and Madison, both catering to women as well as men. After Fred Pressman retired, his sons Gene and Robert took over and targeted the rich and the infamous even more. If you’ve seen Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”, you’ll get a good idea of what the typical Barneys wardrobe looked like.

On August 29, 1993, the NY Times Sunday Magazine had a 5000 word article on the store’s ambitions. Like cocaine, Studio 54, and Madonna, it was an icon of the period as reporter Steve Lohr indicated:

Much of retailing, it is said, boils down to understanding life styles and spotting trends. Over the years, Gene Pressman has certainly done plenty of field research. He is by nature a participant, trying what was hip and trendy ever since Woodstock in 1969. “I got so wasted,” he recalled fondly. “And wasn’t the music great?” Later, he sampled Manhattan night life, knew the Andy Warhol crowd, took in the scene of Studio 54 and the like.

He lives in Bugsy Siegel’s former house, a Tudor mansion in Westchester County, overlooking Long Island Sound, which he redid to accommodate a 14,000-bottle wine cellar and a garage with vintage cars. Guests, also clearly a carefully edited selection, get tours past the ’62 Aston Martin in the garage and the expensive wines in the cellar. Gene is married these days with two children. He drives fast, but the rest of his fast-lane life may simply be a fond memory.

Though he’s wealthy and surrounds himself with expensive toys, he clings to his version of 60’s counterculture values. He pulls his white shirt away from his neck to show that it is monogrammed, but on the inside. “How about that for reverse snobbery?” he says.

In order to build their empire in New York as well as stores in other countries enjoying a booming economy, the Pressman’s partnered with Isetan, a Japanese department store also catering to the rich.

Like the Japanese economy, Barneys expanded too fast and too much on a mountain of debt, thus leading to bankruptcy in 1996. In 1999 a book by Joshua Levine titled “The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory and Greed “ was published by William Morrow. If the title evokes Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, this review in the New York Observer will explain why:

Some years ago, a friend took her 14-year-old son to the 17th Street Barneys to buy a birthday gift for his style-conscious grandfather. Dressed in full New York private school uniform (frayed baggy jeans, ripped T-shirt), my friend’s son seemed to have come from a different fashion planet; here the aliens were buying and selling silk socks that, judging by their price, must have been produced by worms specially selected and properly compensated for outspinning their grubbier brothers. For a while, the boy was mystified, and put off. But eventually he succumbed to the lure of the buttery loafers, the ties arrayed in bright rainbows, like elegant wearable candy; he fell for the seductive chemistry of luxury, snobbery and taste. As they left, he turned around, and promised the expensive, attractive things, “I’ll be back!” When I asked my friend how this made her feel, she said, “As if I’d personally introduced him to the Devil.”

The most entertaining and upsetting sections document the sheer wastefulness, misguidedness and mismanagement that went into the construction of the catastrophically expensive–$267 million–Madison Avenue Barneys, the Pressmans’ monument to themselves: “‘The Pressmans kept saying they wanted this to be the most beautiful store in the world,’ says one of the top architects on the project … ‘We did a whole boutique [lined] with goatskin … I was arguing that you could do this in a faux finish, and you might spend an eighth of the price. The response was, like, why use faux goatskin when you could use real goatskin?’”

Why? Presumably, so all that expensive fabulousness could be osmotically absorbed by the sales staff, who would then feel righteously entitled to give Barneys’ customers the maximum amount of attitude. The arrogance and oily-hip demeanor of the salespeople eventually became a liability for the store, as shoppers began to wonder why they were sneered at so contemptuously when they handed over their credit card to pay for, say, the Rei Kawakubo bump dress that for a small fortune could make a woman look like she had tumors growing on her ass.

Like other wonders of the world (the Pyramids, for example), the building took its toll not only in money but in human life. One worker fell off a scaffolding, the other tumbled down an empty elevator shaft–a death that, Mr. Levine suggests, may have been connected to a dispute over the profitable disposition of the scrap metal that the construction site was generating. But unlike the slave laborers who built the Pyramids, these workers expected to get paid, a modest expectation often at odds with the Pressmans’ increasingly precarious financial situation. Creditors resorted to scrawling nasty graffiti on the unfinished building and (as they grew more impatient) making death threats against their employers, tactics the Pressmans countered by beefing up store security.

Reading The Rise and Fall of Barneys means wading through the details of the bad business decisions that brought the Pressmans low; some people love this sort of thing, which I find about as exciting as watching a stranger balance his checkbook. And at times I couldn’t help wishing that Mr. Levine had gained access to the family. To know what makes the Pressmans tick might be like channeling the Pharaohs, or Louis XIV. Nonetheless, Joshua Levine has done a serviceable and entertaining job of explaining why, when my friend’s son makes his long-promised return to the pretty ties and shoes of the Chelsea Barneys, the store he remembers will be long gone–and he’ll find himself in Loehmann’s.

October 26, 2013

Documenting the Egyptian and Iranian revolutions

Filed under: Egypt,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

If John Reed had been equipped with a digital camera rather than a typewriter in Mexico in 1913 or Russia in 1917, I doubt that he could have produced a film that surpasses “The Square” that opened yesterday at the Film Forum in New York (it arrives in three different locations in California on November 1.)  Directed by Jehane Noujaim, a 39-year-old Egyptian-American whose best known previous credit was the al-Jazeera documentary “The Control Room”, was on location in Egypt from the inception of the Tahrir Square occupation to the overthrow of Morsi. Not only was she on location, she appeared to be in the middle of the most decisive events, at times involving triumph and other times defeat. And even more decisively, she extracts the maximum drama and visual impact out of each moment, making her arguably one of the finest documentary filmmakers on the scene today.

The film “stars” a group of Egyptians who were on the front lines of the revolution, including a young man named Ahmed Hassan who narrowly escaped with his life in a skirmish with the Egyptian military. When he was 8 years old, he was selling lemons on the street. His hope is only that Egyptians can live in a society where there are democratic rights, opportunity for all, and free from corruption. Throughout the film he voices both his elation at feeling that moment might be arriving and despair at realizing that it might be some time in arriving.

His old friend Magdy is a bearded Muslim Brotherhood member who defies the instructions of his leaders to take part in Tahrir Square protests. He has earned credibility with Ahmed for withstanding torture over the years in pursuit of what he perceived as a better Egypt under Islamic rule even though Ahmed has little interest in a Muslim state. His vision is one of an Egypt in which Muslim, Christian, and nonbeliever can stand together in pursuit of the common good.

The film includes a couple of notables, who despite their celebrity take risks equal to Ahmed and Magdy. One is Khalid Abdalla, the Egyptian-British actor who starred in “The Kite Runner”. He is seen in Skype conversations with his father who has been a long-standing opponent of the Mubarak dictatorship. We also meet Ramy Essam, the singer who is the unofficial voice of the revolution. After the overthrow of Mubarak, he is picked up by the cops and tortured in the Egyptian museum—a site that is the nation’s counterpart to the notorious soccer stadium in Chile where Victor Jara was murdered.

Among the courageous women profiled in the film is Aida El Kashef, the young filmmaker who is friends with Ramy Essam and who used her camera to expose the brutality and lies of the dictatorship.

The film consists of three acts:

–The overthrow of Mubarak

–The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood

–The growing disenchantment with the Brotherhood and the military coup that exploited those feelings.

Like a Shakespearean play, the characters are constantly in dialog weighing their decisions on the street corner or in living rooms. There is tension throughout since the stakes are so high. When the Muslim Brotherhood assumes power, Ahmed lashes into Magdy who has little in the way of a defense of a constitution that gives Morsi more power than Mubarak ever had. But when the army topples Morsi, Ahmed rushes to Tahrir Square to close ranks with the Muslim Brothers.

The film also includes a couple of military figures who are hoisted on their own petard as they reveal to Jehane Noujaim how little they believe in democracy even as their top officers are announcing on Egyptian television that they are with the protesters.

In the final paragraph of the synopsis found in the press notes, we encounter a statement that not only serves as a compass for the directions of a successful Egyptian revolution but one that should be carefully noted by the Western left so frequently demoralized by its own failure to achieve a swift and decisive victory:

Our goal for audiences is to experience the evolution of a revolution in the 21st century and understand what these activists are trying to say: civil rights and freedoms are never given away, they are fought for. Historically, this has always been the case, from the Civil Rights movement to the fight against Apartheid.  But how does this fight begin and sustain itself and ultimately become successful? This film shows that true change in a society does not begin with a majority, but the relentless and ongoing commitment of individuals to those principles of change.

While by no means as politically and artistically realized as “The Square”, “The Green Wave” that becomes available as a DVD and through ITunes on November 5th (check http://www.thegreenwave-film.com/ for information) is a good companion piece.

Unlike Jehane Noujaim, Ali Samadi Ahadi, the 41-year-old Iranian filmmaker who has lived in Germany since the age of 12, was not in Iran during the events depicted in “The Green Wave”. Like “The Square”, “The Green Wave” begins in jubilation and ends in despair. The 2009 election campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi united every Iranian tired of the brutality and the crony capitalism of the Islamic Republic, which behind its pious pretensions had much more in common with Mubarak than might be apparent at first glance. And even more to the point, it might make sense to think of the election campaign as a harbinger of the Arab Spring even as many on the left tend to regard the Green Movement in Iran as some kind of imperialist plot.

Despite his absence from the battlefield, Ahadi manages to produce a coherent documentary out of three separate strands:

–Footage of rallies and protests that were obviously taken by activists given their often-unfocused quality. What they lack in visual acuity is made up for by their impact as living history.

–Animated representation of the experience of young bloggers who worked on the Mousavi campaign and suffered repression for their “impious” behavior.

–Interviews with leading critics of the Ahmadinejad dictatorship such as Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi who went into exile in 2009. Despite the tendency of some leftists to depict any opponent of Ahmadinejad as an imperialist tool, Ebadi’s credentials are impeccable. She was a supporter of Mossadegh and even backed Khomeini initially. She is also an outspoken critic of Israel and supported a California BDS bill.

But unlike “The Square”, the emphasis is entirely on human rights rather than revolutionary strategy. Almost every moment of the film is devoted to exposure of state brutality, including summary executions, torture, and beatings on the street.

Despite the glum conclusion of the film, the promise of the Mousavi campaign might be finally realized in the election of Hassan Rouhani last month who has released political prisoners, defended equal rights for women, and called for greater political freedom. Whether or not this will whet the appetite for greater change in Iran is uncertain at this point, given the body blow the mass movement suffered in 2009.

When watching these films, I found myself pondering the question why revolutions are vanquished time and time again. In a pattern that is repeated over and over, the “people” unite against a hated dictator only to suffer a new period of suffering often under an ostensibly democratic and popular government. This is generally regarded as the “Arab Winter” today but the phenomenon can be just as easily perceived in Burma where the nation’s “Nelson Mandela” is now seen as a too-willing partner of the army and indifferent to pogroms against Muslims.

Perhaps it is time to retire the “new Nelson Mandela” meme while we are at it since South Africa is probably the best symbol of unrealized revolutionary hopes anywhere in the world.

It seems that in almost every instance of such uprisings, the “people” come to the fore in a kind of nationalist desire for redemption and rebirth but without a class dimension and often placing hopes in a military that is on “the side of the people”, the classic example being the Kerensky government in Russia.

For those educated in the Trotskyist tradition, it is easy as pie to come up with an answer. The revolution has to be “Bolshevik” in character with the working class in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, groups established upon such principles tend to be ignored by the masses since they rest on the assumption that the masses will gravitate to them on the virtue of their profound thoughts.

I wonder if the answer is to synthesize the popular hopes of the Arab Spring with a class orientation that is more implicit than explicit. Keep in mind that the Bolsheviks called for “Peace, Bread, and Land”—not a proletarian dictatorship. Also, keep in mind that the July 26th Movement in Cuba formulated its demands in terms of fulfilling democracy and social justice rather than Communism. When Cuba did become communist (for lack of a better word), it was only as a result of the dialectics of defending democracy and social justice.

At any rate, I recommend these two films for anybody interested in deepening their understanding of revolutions in the 21st century, particularly in nations with a strong Islamic presence. Karl Marx never had to grapple with such complexity and it is up to us to come up with answers that make sense and can move the struggle forward—remembering to leave your dogma at the front door with your shoes.

October 25, 2013

Two jazz musicians pass on

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

NY Times October 22, 2013

Ronald Shannon Jackson, Composer and Avant-Garde Drummer, Dies at 73


Ronald Shannon Jackson, an avant-garde drummer and composer who led an influential electric band and performed with many of the greatest names in jazz, died on Saturday at his home in Fort Worth. He was 73.

His death, from leukemia, was confirmed by his son Talkeye.

Mr. Jackson, whose distinctive look included long hair that he once braided with rivets and subway tokens, had a muscular style that set him apart from his fellow avant-garde jazz drummers, providing for a thunderous yet economical rumble infused with funk, marching-band patterns and African styles. His band, the Decoding Society, showed his knack for writing rigorous yet approachable music.

He performed over the years with Charles Mingus, Betty Carter, Jackie McLean and Joe Henderson. But his name was most closely linked with three free-jazz pioneers: the saxophonist Albert Ayler, the pianist Cecil Taylor and, foremost, the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who also hailed from Fort Worth.

After his brief but important stint with Mr. Coleman’s groundbreaking electric band, Prime Time, Mr. Jackson forged ahead with the Decoding Society in 1979. The group extended and streamlined the kinetic, boldly polyphonic style that Mr. Coleman had introduced while incorporating rhythms derived from ethnic styles.

“We’re coming from a world music as opposed to one kind of beat,” Mr. Jackson told The New York Times in 1982.

“Everything we do has a foundation,” he continued in that article. “I think the African phrases are very obvious. I think the funk phrases are very obvious. I think the Oriental phrases are obvious. I think the Bulgarian rhythms are there — I hear all of it.”

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the band was a proving ground for veteran instrumentalists like the saxophonist Charles Brackeen and the violinist Billy Bang, as well as promising newcomers. Two of Mr. Jackson’s protégés, the guitarist Vernon Reid (later of the rock band Living Colour) and the bassist Melvin Gibbs (who went on to play with the punk-rock vocalist Henry Rollins), performed with him sporadically through his final years.

Mr. Jackson was born in Fort Worth on Jan. 12, 1940. His mother, Ella Mae, played piano and organ at a Methodist church and his father, William, was the proprietor of Fort Worth’s only black-owned record store and jukebox supplier. The saxophonists King Curtis and David (Fathead) Newman were relatives; among the musicians who preceded him at I. M. Terrell High School were Mr. Coleman and the saxophonists Dewey Redman and Julius Hemphill. Mr. Jackson played his first public engagement, with the saxophonist James Clay, at age 15, then worked with Ray Charles’s band in Dallas. In 1966 he went to New York, where he enrolled at New York University. That year he made his first recording, with the Charles Tyler Ensemble, and joined Ayler’s band. His work with Ayler is documented on two roughly recorded but urgently played volumes of “Live at Slug’s Saloon.”

By 1967 Mr. Jackson’s career was derailed by drugs, he said in an interview published by Fort Worth Weekly in 2003. Introduced to Buddhism by the bassist Buster Williams in 1974, Mr. Jackson regained his health. A passing encounter with Mr. Coleman led to a four-year run with the newly formed Prime Time, which recorded the watershed album “Dancing in Your Head” and its successor, “Body Meta.” He joined Mr. Taylor’s band in 1978 and stayed for six months, appearing on four albums.

Mr. Jackson formed the Decoding Society in 1979, and it would occupy him for the rest of his career. Not just a showcase for his drumming, flute and schalmei (an archaic horn), the band also showed his increasing confidence as a composer. Albums like “Mandance” (1982), “Barbeque Dog” (1983) and “Decode Yourself” (1985) reaped critical acclaim. He seemed poised for a breakthrough.

He still found time for side projects. In 1986 he joined Last Exit, a blustering jazz-metal quartet with the saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, the guitarist Sonny Sharrock and the bassist Bill Laswell. Another venture with Mr. Laswell, SXL, brought the two together with the Indian violinist L. Shankar, the Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng and the South Korean percussion troupe Samulnori. In 1987 Mr. Jackson joined Mr. Gibbs and the guitarist Bill Frisell in a trio, Power Tools, which made one album, “Strange Meeting.”

Commercial success eluded Mr. Jackson. But Decoding Society albums like “Red Warrior” (1990), a fiery guitar-oriented session, and “What Spirit Say” (1994), featuring the saxophonist James Carter, showed that he had never stopped evolving as a composer. “Shannon’s House,” his final studio recording as a leader, was issued in 1996.

In 2000 Mr. Jackson’s playing was curtailed by nerve injury in his left arm. By 2005 he had recovered sufficiently to play in the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet. Mr. Jackson played his final public concert with a new Decoding in July 2012 in Dallas, video clips of which were posted on YouTube.

Besides his son Talkeye, Mr. Jackson is survived by his wife, Natalie; two other sons, Gregory and Clifford; a daughter, Sunday; three grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

NY Times October 23, 2013

Butch Warren, 74, Prominent Jazz Bassist, Dies


Butch Warren, a bassist who performed and recorded with Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and many others and seemed poised for a high profile in the jazz world before his career was permanently derailed by mental illness and substance abuse, died on Oct. 5 in Silver Spring, Md. He was 74.

The cause was cancer, according to an announcement on his Web site.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Warren was one of the most prominent bassists in jazz. His powerful, lively lines anchored albums now regarded as classics, most of them on the Blue Note label, including Dexter Gordon’s “Go!,” Joe Henderson’s “Page One” and Mr. Hancock’s first recording as a leader, “Takin’ Off.”

In 1963 he joined Monk’s quartet, one of the most popular ensembles in jazz. He recorded and toured the United States, Europe and Japan with Monk, who Mr. Warren recalled once told him, “You make my music sound better.”

But like many jazz musicians of his generation, Mr. Warren struggled with heroin addiction. He also had serious mental problems. Shortly after he left Monk in 1964 and returned to his native Washington, he was hospitalized and received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

For the rest of his career he remained in Washington, surfacing occasionally to perform in area clubs and then disappearing for long stretches, during which he was hospitalized and sometimes homeless.

In his last years Mr. Warren was healthy enough not just to resume performing locally but also to record his first and only albums as a leader: “French 5tet” (2011), recorded in Paris, and “Butch’s Blues” (2012).

Edward Rudolph Warren was born in Washington on Aug. 9, 1939, and began performing at age 14 in a group led by his father, the pianist Eddie Warren. After working in and around Washington for a few years, he moved to New York, where he attracted attention as a member of the trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s group in 1959.

Mr. Warren was married and divorced twice. Survivors include a daughter, Sharon Warren.

October 24, 2013

Taking stock of Julian Assange

Filed under: Wikileaks — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

With his long limbs, feline good looks, signature white mane, and Scarlet Pimpernel reputation, Julian Assange would attract the attention of any filmmaker (or young woman apparently). After seeing the dreadful “The Fifth Estate”, I decided to say something about it as well as five other films focused on the Wikileaks saga. In effect, Assange and Wikileaks are practically synonymous (with supporting roles by Bradley Channing and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the Judas Iscariot upon whose tell-all book “The Fifth Estate” is based.) After providing something of a consumer’s guide to what is out there filmically, I will conclude with some thoughts on his meteoric rise and ignominious fall.

Before doing that, I want to say a few things about my own connection to computers and radical politics. Using the name Mendax back in 1989, the 18-year-old Julian Assange was hacking into military computer networks with his Commodore 64 computer and a dial-up modem. At that time, I was 44 years old and the president of the board of Tecnica, a technical aid project that was sending hundreds of volunteers to Nicaragua in order to train Sandinista government workers in database, spreadsheets, and other microcomputer applications. Eventually we began working with the African National Congress, implementing an encrypted communications link between party headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia and their Mission to the United Nations. That year Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica, and I visited the Cuban Mission to the U.N. to discuss possibly expanding the project into Cuba. After a couple of more contacts and some promising first steps, we became the target of an FBI fishing expedition that claimed we were part of an espionage network sending high technology to the USSR via Nicaragua and Cuba. None of this was true. The purpose of the FBI visits to workplaces of returned volunteers was to intimidate them and future volunteers from having anything to do with Nicaragua. Ultimately the organization collapsed because the Nicaraguan revolution collapsed. In any case, I have a strong identification with the Wikileaks project even though we were pursuing different strategies.

1. The Fifth Estate—a narrative film with a reactionary agenda.

“The Fifth Estate” is a throwback to vintage anti-Communist films of the 1950s with their customarily ruthless, fanatical, and megalomaniac villains—the kind who are capable of saying things like “the future belongs to us, you pathetic fool”. In fact just a decade earlier the same kind of character showed up in Hollywood movies but brandishing a swastika rather than a hammer-and-sickle.  You’ll be reminded most of all of the 1955 “My Son John”, with its arrogant and intellectual lead character who returns from a visit to the USSR with a glassy-eyed belief in the superiority of Communism. By contrast, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played ironically by Daniel Brühl, the star of “Goodbye Lenin”, an exercise in Ostalgia) is much more in tune with reality and always clashing with Assange (played by an actor with the thoroughly Dickensian moniker Benedict Cumberbatch).

A pivotal scene demonstrates the contrast between Assange and Domschiet-Berg who is his second in command at Wikileaks. It is late at night and Domschiet-Berg is ready to have sex with Anke, his wife, when there’s a knock at the door. It is Assange bursting with excitement over a leaked report that documents American war crimes. His wife gives him a look as if to say, why are we putting up with this geek? He shrugs his shoulders sheepishly, obviously more intent on love than war. Coitus interruptus apparently trumps belli interruptus in Domscheit-Berg’s world.

Back in the 60s, elderly liberals like Max Lerner used to lecture student radicals about how they were really angry at their fathers rather than the war, as if hating napalm attacks on peasant villages was a symptom of an unresolved Oedipal Complex. You get the same kind of pop psychology in “The Fifth Estate” with frequent allusions to Assange’s unhappy childhood and examples of what appears to be severe antisocial behavior. For example, when Domscheit-Berg’s parents unexpectedly invite Assange to their house for dinner, he is surprised to see him graciously accept. But during dinner, after excusing himself to go to the bathroom, he just walks out the back door leaving them in the lurch. No attempt is made to explain his behavior. We are just expected to view him as capable of anything, including the killing of people named in the reports leaked by Manning who have collaborated with the Americans.

In a scene that is calculated to prejudice you against Assange, you see a Libyan opponent of Gaddafi who was named in a report barely escaping with his life—or so it would seem. This has no connection to the actual tensions between Assange and his mainstream media partners in the Wikileaks publication but is just introduced for melodramatic effect. The Libyan, a family man with a good job in the state oil industry that any American can identify with, is someone that Assange would have sacrificed for the Higher Mission. It is classic anti-Communist propaganda, even if Assange’s ideology is not so easy to pin down.

The Wikileaks website has material dealing with this film as well as others. I found Assange’s letter to the actor who played him quite eloquent:

You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. To present me as someone morally compromised and to place me in a falsified history. To create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.

Not because you want to, of course you don’t, but because, in the end, you are a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.

Your skills play into the hands of people who are out to remove me and WikiLeaks from the world.

I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise.

Consider the consequences of your cooperation with a project that vilifies and marginalises a living political refugee to the benefit of an entrenched, corrupt and dangerous state.

Consider the consequences to people who may fall into harm because of this film.

Many will fight against history being blackwashed in this way. It is a collective history now, involving millions of people, because millions have opened their eyes as a result of our work and the attempts to destroy us.

I believe you are well intentioned but surely you can see why it is a bad idea for me to meet with you.

Read in full: http://wikileaks.org/First-Letter-from-Julian-Assange.html

2. We Steal Secrets—a hostile documentary by a treacherous liberal

With films like “Taxi to the Dark Side”, a documentary on an Afghan cabdriver beaten to death by American soldiers while in custody, to his credit, one might have assumed that Alex Gibney would be the ideal candidate for something on Wikileaks.

While the film is useful in demonstrating the kinds of abuses that led Assange to form Wikileaks and Private Bradley Manning to turn over material that sickened him surely as much as the killing of a cabdriver sickened Gibney, the last thirty minutes or so is an exercise in finger-pointing at Wikileaks’s failure to protect the innocent like the Libyan in “The Fifth Estate” and Assange’s personality and political flaws—mostly in line with Domscheit-Berg’s venomous book.

The best thing you can say about it is that it is a competent work with tip-top production values and never a dull moment.

Despite Gibney’s efforts to put himself on the side of those appalled by American war crimes, he lets his real feelings slip out toward the end of the film after Assange has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy. What hypocrisy, Gibney asserts. This is a government that is widely considered to be corrupt and that has put hampers on the media. Of course, anybody who has studied Venezuela and Ecuador understands that private newspapers and televisions have broken laws in their efforts to topple democratically elected presidents not favored by the rich and the American State Department.

A June 25, 2013 Counterpunch article by Adam Chimienti took up the question of the alleged hypocrisy.

One of the issues that NGOs and journalists have cited in their litany of complaints about Ecuador’s endangered freedom of the press actually stems from the 2010 police and military uprising. During the chaos that ensued during the alleged coup attempt, one reporter from the paper of record in Guayaquil took the opportunity to claim that Correa had ordered police to fire on a crowd of innocent onlookers caught up in the melee, presumably aiming to provoke anti-government sentiments. The claim turned out to be completely unsubstantiated. The government fined the journalist and his paper El Universo some $40 million for defamation but later withdrew the charges. Consider what might have happened in the US if the Los Angeles Times or Washington Post would have falsely claimed that Barack Obama had personally ordered military or police forces to fire on a crowd of protesters and innocent people were injured as a result somewhere in Washington, D.C It would be difficult to imagine a reporter and his editors ever committing such a stupid move, but if they had, there would have been some serious consequences. Alas, this is not really too shocking in the context of a sensationalist Latin American press.

“We Steal Secrets” can be rented as a DVD from Netflix or online from Amazon.com for $3.99

3. WikiLeaks: Secrets and Lies—another documentary with an axe to grind

Made by the Guardian for Channel 4 in Britain, this can best be described as “We Steal Secrets”-lite. It reflects the tensions that existed between the British paper well known for its liberal politics and willingness to challenge limits on press freedom and its one-time partner who went a bridge too far. About the best thing that can be said about it is that is free in the Youtube video above.

I can only urge you to read Wikileaks’s statement on the documentary, which is really quite damning.

The brunt of the criticism has to do with the role of David Leigh serving as consultant on the film. Leigh, who was the investigations executive editor at the Guardian, has it in for Assange. Their differences have a lot to do with interpretations of Assange’s stance on released documents from Afghanistan that supposedly would include the names of collaborators even if they were to be killed as a result. Since this is one of the biggest controversies in the Assange legacy, as well as the rape charges, I will deal with this at some length in the conclusion to this article.

4. Mediastan—a “road movie” with Wikileaks reps trying to persuade sleazy editors to publish their material

This witty and ingratiating 94-minute documentary produced by Julian Assange can be watched after paying a modest fee of $2.99 at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/mediastan. It consists of a group of volunteers making a sales pitch to various editors in the compromised newly independent republics of the former Soviet empire followed by a fascinating tête-à-tête with the NY Times’s Bill Keller. It is tough to figure out who is tawdrier, the guy who runs Turkestan’s de facto state newspaper or Keller.

There’s also a meeting with the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger, who is put on the defensive about the supposedly envelop-pushing stance on whistle blowing. When he offers a bland assurance that redaction should only take place to defend the lives of the innocent, he is asked why mafia gangsters’ names are also blacked out.

Keller is a sight to behold. There was always a tension between Wikileaks and the NY Times. Keller understood that the leaks would sell newspapers, but at the expense of the reputation of the national security state. Although the statement is completely apocryphal, Lenin’s observation that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them” rings true.

5. Julian Assange – A Modern Day Hero? Inside The World Of WikiLeaks—a cinéma vérité take on Wikileaks

This 175-minute film directed by A.N. Other is best understood as a resource rather than a finely honed documentary marketed commercially. It can be rented from Amazon for $7.95 and recommended mostly for people committed to understanding Julian Assange and the Wikileaks story in depth—people like us in other words.

The last 20 minutes or so consists of Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg fielding questions from an audience. There is little doubt that Domscheit-Berg was an important figure in the organization—such as it was—and even more so how much of a traitor he became.

6. Underground: The Julian Assange Story—an Australian narrative film in the spirit of “The Young Abe Lincoln”.

This is an Australian narrative film that can also be rented from Amazon.com. It is basically a cat-and-mouse detective story in the spirit of “War Games” with Julian Assange playing the same sort of role played by Matthew Broderick—a teenage hacker trying to gain entrance to the military computer network. In “War Games” the drama revolved around trying to prevent a nuclear war with the USSR that Broderick would trigger due to a misunderstanding.

The drama in Underground consists of the 18 year old Assange trying to elude the Australian cops while he is in the process of ferreting out Pentagon reports admitting what amounts to war crimes in the first Gulf war.

The film also depicts Assange fathering his first child with almost negligible understanding of the responsibilities that would ensue. Assange is on record as recommending the film, ostensibly on the basis of the politics but—perhaps—on the basis of his conduct with women as well.

As is the case with the films mentioned above, this too can be watched on Amazon. I should add that a Prime membership with Amazon allows a discount on rentals for many flicks that are only available as DVD’s from Netflix. Yes, I know, Jeff Bezos is a scumbag but what can you do?

Concluding thoughts on Julian Assange

The redaction controversy

Except for the last film considered above that ends long before Wikileaks was created, the question of redacting (deleting in plain language) the names of Afghan civilians was paramount. It was supposedly Assange’s decision to release unredacted documents that led to Domscheit-Berg’s break with the group.

It is not an easy task to keep track of the debate through the film medium. There are a few points, however, that must be stressed:

–When Wikileaks asked the Pentagon for assistance in identifying the names of Afghanis or Iraqis who needed to be protected, it refused. When it also asked Amnesty International for assistance, it too refused. Going through tens of thousands of documents to manually remove such names was simply beyond the capability of a volunteer staff.

–There was a group of 15,000 documents that were far more sensitive with respect to the identification of informants. Wikileaks agreed to not publish them.

–Finding a guide to this tortured tale is not easy but I obviously would consider Glenn Greenwald a reliable source. His Salon.com articles on Wikileaks are the best place to go, especially an article titled “Facts and myths in the WikiLeaks/Guardian saga” that states:

Despite the fault fairly assigned to WikiLeaks, one point should be absolutely clear: there was nothing intentional about WikiLeaks’ publication of the cables in unredacted form.  They ultimately had no choice.  Ever since WikiLekas was widely criticized (including by me) for publishing Afghan War documents without redacting the names of some sources (though much blame also lay with the U.S. Government for rebuffing its request for redaction advice), the group has been meticulous about protecting the identity of innocents.  The New York Times‘ Scott Shane today describes “efforts by WikiLeaks and journalists to remove the names of vulnerable people in repressive countries” in subsequent releases; indeed, WikiLeaks ”used software to remove proper names from Iraq war documents and worked with news organizations to redact the cables.”  After that Afghan release, the group has demonstrated a serious, diligent commitment to avoiding pointless exposure of innocent people — certainly far more care than the U.S. Government took in safeguarding these documents.

The rape charges

In some ways the incidents in Sweden were destined to happen due to the political/existential character of Julian Assange. As someone with a rock star persona who lived practically out of a suitcase bouncing from one country to another, it was virtually impossible to sustain a stable, monogamous relationship. What’s more, he was apparently into “one-night stands” of the sort that rock musicians cultivate. So in a sense, the house arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy was preordained.

In terms of the divisions on the left about how Assange should have been treated—with some insisting that he be deported to Sweden straightaway and others calling him the victim of a CIA “honey trap”—I think that Richard Seymour got it right:

This is surely not that difficult an issue, yet I’ve never seen an issue so divisive on the Left, since the last issue that was this divisive. On the face of it, the difficulty arises from an inability to walk and chew gum at the same time.  That is: it is surely quite possible to take these rape allegations against Assange seriously, and not participate in typical patriarchal denigration of women reporting rape, while at the same time taking the US threat to Assange seriously and supporting efforts to resist that.  If this needs to be expressed in a concrete demand, then the demand should be for the Swedish prosecutors to facilitate justice – which will not be served by Assange’s extradition to the US – by arranging a safe way for him to answer police questions, where he doesn’t risk being abducted.  That would be best both for Assange and for his accusers.  See?  It isn’t hard.  Yet the polarised reactions almost seem to suggest there’s an impossible dilemma at stake.

Bad election preferences

It should be clear from everything written so far that I consider Julian Assange to be a figure of major historical importance even if he made some unwise decisions when it came to personal relations (leaving aside the question of what actually happened in the Swedish bedrooms).

However, I have been dismayed by recent decisions by the Wikileaks “movement”—such as it is. In Australia, when the Wikileaks Party ran in the last election, it cut some deals that smacked of smoke-filled rooms rather than the idealism of Assange’s youth. In an article titled “Principles should determine preferences” Greenleft Weekly reported on the strange bedfellows Wikileaks made. The term “preferenced” alludes to a system that allows you to pick first, second, and third choices, etc. If a party does not get elected, its votes get channeled to other parties based on the indicated preferences :

In NSW [New South Wales], the WikiLeaks Party preferenced neo-fascist Australia First, anti-feminist Non-Custodial Parents Party, and the far-right Shooters and Fishers ahead of actively pro-WikiLeaks parties including the Greens and the Socialist Alliance.

In Victoria the WikiLeaks Party also preferenced right-wing parties such as the Fishing and Lifestyle Party, Smokers Rights and the pro-business lobby Building Australia Party, ahead of the Greens.

The preferences have led to a crisis in the party with a long-time friend and ally of Assange resigning.

The future of whistleblowing

One suspects that Wikileaks represents its past rather than its future. The fact that Edward Snowden went to Glenn Greenwald rather than Wikileaks tells you that past controversies have damaged its reputation beyond repair. However, there is also little doubt that without the example of Wikileaks, Snowden never would have come forward.

I also suspect that in some ways—obviously impossible to prove—the NSA’s vast reach into our email and phone calls are a reflection of the government’s determination to control the flow of information. As commentators have pointed out, al-Qaeda has little to fear from the NSA since their communications are completely off the grid. Nor does the average beer-swilling, football watching man or woman have much to fear as well. Even though the NSA has access to their phone calls and email, it is unlikely that Joe Sixpack will be sent off to Guantanamo for rooting for the New York Jets.

Isn’t it possible, however, that the NSA’s real target is people like Edward Snowden who relied on encryption technology that might eventually prove useless against an intrusive NSA that has every email provider serving as a co-conspirator against those who want to step forward to expose government crimes? Even if someone like Snowden was willing to risk arrest, wouldn’t an enhanced surveillance have put him out of business long before he connected with Greenwald?

Probably, there will come a time when hand-delivered and hand-written letters on paper will become crucial links connecting one revolutionary to another. That’s one good reason that the dead trees legacy must be preserved.

October 21, 2013

Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

Ted Cruz and Grandpa Munster

October 19, 2013

Assault on Wall Street

Filed under: Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 1:23 pm

“Assault on Wall Street”, a B movie that was in and out of New York theaters about a year ago for only a moment and with scant attention from critics, just showed up on Netflix streaming. The director Uwe Boll is regarded as one of the worst in the world, with some considering him the “Ed Wood of the 21st century”. The film got one “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and six “rottens”. The one fresh came from my NYFCO colleague Prairie Miller who described it:

Possibly the only director on the planet who has garnered a strange recognition through utter infamy, Boll engages in a weirdly raw and rowdy subversive ideological descent into the dysfunctionally dark recesses of US culture.

Prairie’s full review

I went to a press screening but did not write anything about it since I considered it to be more in the grindhouse genre than a serious film dealing with the collapse of the financial system like J.C. Chandor’s great “Margin Call”.

Although I still am loath to overpraise this film, it is definitely worth watching if you are a Netflix subscriber. It starts out in exactly with the way that “Margin Call” ends with a Goldman-Sachs type firm dumping bundled securities worth almost nothing on unsuspecting clients, including a security guard named Jim Baxford who is a modern-day Job. His wife is undergoing expensive cancer treatments whose monthly costs are only partially covered by insurance. When his investments go south, he can no longer pay his bills and his wages become garnished. Once that happens, he loses his job as an armored truck guard since the company cannot keep someone with major financial burdens on the payroll since they theoretically might be tempted to become part of an inside job.

The only thing that Baxford becomes tempted into becoming is a combination of Travis Bickle and an Occupy Wall Street protester. The finale of the movie is a beautiful and deeply satisfying mass murder of a bunch of stockbrokers and other scumbags who victimized our hero. Is that a spoiler alert? Sorry about that.

German director Uwe Boll’s last film was obviously preparatory to this. Titled “Postal”, it is a “comedy” that Wikipedia describes as follows:

The film takes place in the town of Paradise, Arizona (a ghost town in real life), where the volatile Postal Dude, after being mocked at a job interview, kicked out of his local unemployment office and discovering that his morbidly obese wife is cheating on him, is more than a little angry and is desperate to get enough cash to finally leave his dead-end town. He decides to team up with his Uncle Dave, a slovenly con artist turned doomsday cult leader who owes the US government over a million dollars in back-taxes. With the help of Uncle Dave’s right hand man Richie and an army of big-breasted, scantily clad cult members, the Dude devises a plan to hijack a shipment of 2,000 Krotchy Dolls, a rare, sought-after plush toy resembling a giant scrotum. Uncle Dave plans to sell them online, where their prices have reached as high as $4,000 a doll.

Unbeknownst to them, Osama bin Laden and his group of Al-Qaeda terrorists, who had been secretly hiding in Paradise since September 11, under the watchful eye of bin Laden’s best friend George W. Bush, are after the same shipment, but for entirely different reasons. Hoping to outdo the catastrophe of 9/11, they plan to instill the dolls with Avian influenza and distribute them to unsuspecting American children. The two groups meet at the shipment’s destination, Nazi-themed amusement park Little Germany. A fight between Postal creator Vince Desi and Postal director and park owner Uwe Boll (which ends with Boll being shot in the genitals, confessing “I hate video games”), sparks a massive shootout between the cult, the terrorists and the police, resulting in the deaths of dozens of innocent children. The Dude and the cult are able to get away with both the shipment and the park’s opening day guest, Verne Troyer, pursued by Al-Qaeda, the police and a mob of angry citizens.

I can’t vouch for this but “Assault on Wall Street” does have its moments.

Boll is something of a character. In June 2006 he challenged some of his harshest critics to a boxing match, something I should have done with Vivek Chibber now that I think about it. He beat the living crap out of one of them:

October 18, 2013

A pervert’s guide to Zizek

Filed under: philosophy,popular culture,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition October 18-20, 2013
Elvis is on the Screen!
A Pervert’s Guide to Zizek

Full disclosure: I have written at least ten critiques of Slavoj Zizek over the years so I approached the new documentary “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” with some skepticism. Despite this, I found much of it entertaining and even a little enlightening. At two hours and thirty minutes, however, it begins to lose its charm especially since the film is essentially one long lecture by the man called the Elvis of cultural theory. As is the case with all super-stars, critical self-reflection goes by the wayside when adoring fans surround you all the time telling you how great you are. It probably never entered the mind of director Sophie Fiennes (sister to actor Ralph) that the film was a half-hour too long and least of all that of the Slovenian Elvis himself.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/18/a-perverts-guide-to-zizek/

October 17, 2013

Gravity; All is Lost

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm

By sheer happenstance two films have arrived in theaters lately sharing a common theme and to great acclaim. Both have plots in which the major character tries to survive after a catastrophic accident, one in outer space and the other on the open seas. Since both are innovative after their own fashions, they make for an interesting side-by-side comparison. As I will try to explain, “Gravity” is fairly commonplace despite its gadgetry—both in front of and behind the camera. Meanwhile, “All is Lost” is a major achievement even though it is a throwback to the early days of film: there are no more than a couple of dozen words spoken throughout the entire film, even though there are sounds in abundance such as thunder and the crunching noises of a yacht coming apart at the seams.

I went to “Gravity” with high expectations. The director was Alfonso Cuarón, a Mexican whose last film “Children of Men” I held in high regard even though I had problems with the dystopian themes that originated with the original material, a P.D. James novel. With a 98 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes accompanied by blurbs that are the stock and trade of professional film critics (“Nerve-racking, sentimental and thrilling, Gravity honors terra firma even as it reaches for the stars with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney” was how the Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy put it), I hoped for at least a couple of hours of escapist fun and a “2001” type ecstasy at best. Escapist fun is about the best way to describe it unfortunately.

As most people know, physicists—including Marxmail’s technical coordinator Les Schaffer—warned that much of what happens makes no sense. The most common complaint is that the satellites between which the astronauts hopscotch are far apart. This did not worry me since I long ago learned that a film has its own internal logic. Once you buy into the plot, a function more of dramatic than scientific logic, you go along for the ride. It is as Marianne Moore once described poetry: “imaginary gardens with real toads.”

My real problem was with the early departure of George Clooney, who I expected to survive as Sandra Bullock’s helpmate in outer space. As characters, they played off well against each other. He was a kind of elderly frat boy telling stories and making jokes while serving as the mission’s seasoned flight commander. Bullock is a dedicated and somewhat overwhelmed scientist assigned to fix the Hubble telescope. My expectation was that they would provide for some lively dialog until the bitter end but he is killed off early on, leaving Bullock on her own to figure out a way to make it home safely. How can you make a film with a single character trying desperately to push the right buttons in order to survive?

Ironically this was exactly the premise of “All is Lost”, a film that I regard as the finest from Hollywood that I have seen in five years at least and that deserves the 93 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and even more. Although this review will not contain any spoilers, my best advice is for people who trust my tastes in film is to not read any further and simply go see the film straightaway. The less you know about it, the better your enjoyment.

Still with me? Okay, let me proceed.

“All is Lost” opens with Robert Redford (his character’s name is never identified) napping in the cabin of his yacht that is somewhere in the middle of the ocean—which ocean is not important to the plot. After waking to the sight of water rushing into the cabin through a breach in the hull, he climbs to the deck and discovers the cause. The yacht has run into the sharp corner of a container that has obviously fallen from a cargo ship. This evokes both a globalization version of the Titanic as well as the accident that sets the plot of “Gravity” into motion, the detritus of a Russian satellite.

Except for a single word uttered by Redford midway through the film—FUCK—that is cried out after he discovers that his water supply has been compromised by salt water, there is not another spoken word. Despite this, the screenplay that was written by the director J.C. Chandor is worthy of study by any film student aspiring to make the exceptional film. Although a screenplay is most often about the dialog, there are directions that help clue the actors and allow the director to  flesh out the work even when not a single word is being said. Like “All is Lost”, the great screenplay by William Broyles for “Cast Away” contains long stretches in which Tom Hanks says nothing. If you go to the source, you will find directions for a scene that is very close to what transpires throughout “All is Lost”:

Waves break against the reef. With his paddles Chuck maneuvers the raft toward the cut in the reef. Boom! The wave crashes, the water surges through the cut, then recedes with a whoosh.

Chuck watches, times the waves, paddles like mad. He’s committed. SCRAPE goes the first barrel, then the second, riding the receding wave. He’s out!

But the next wave is already surging forward. It smashes the raft against the reef! Coconuts and foodstuffs hurtle off the raft!

The barrels cushion the impact. The raft tilts, spins, but stays outside the reef! The ropes holding the jugs of water break! The water sweeps overboard!

Ultimately what makes “All is Lost” far more compelling than “Gravity” is the ability of J.C. Chandor to make you identify with his character. None of us (I assume that astronauts are not the sort of people who visit this blog) have ever been in outer space but nearly everybody knows what it is like to be in a sailboat out on the ocean. Once Redford’s yacht has been compromised, he makes every effort to stay afloat using the means at his disposal. When his GPS system stops functioning because of exposure to salt water, he resorts to an old-fashioned sextant that he learns to use from a book he fortunately kept on board about navigating by the stars. For those who have seen “Gravity”, you can’t help but be reminded of Sandra Bullock working her way through the manuals on the Russian space station, trying to figure out a way to use the Soyuz space capsule to return home. The difference is in the context. One can relate to Redford’s predicament while Bullock’s dwells more in the realm of fantasy. Everybody knows what it is like to be under water; nobody knows what it is like to be jetting from satellite to satellite miles above the planet earth. Because Redford’s struggle to survive is more recognizable, it is more emotionally involving even if less spectacular visually.

Although any competent actor could have been a substitute for Redford, this is a film that he was made for. Like the fisherman in “The Old Man in the Sea” who was obviously a stand-in for Hemingway himself, Redford is a stand-in for Redford—a man who has had a long and distinguished career as an actor and independent film impresario. With his weather-beaten face gazing in disgust at the container that has disabled his ship, it is not hard to extrapolate from this his attitude toward much of modern society—from the despoliation of the oceans and forests to the tendency of Hollywood to foist its commercial junk on the unsuspecting filmgoer.

You also have to appreciate what an undertaking it was for the 77 year old actor to perform many of the arduous stunts seen in the film, from swimming under water to climbing the 65 foot mast of the yacht.

For J.C. Chandor, Redford’s Sundance Film Festival marked the auspicious beginning of what is likely to be a great career. In 2011 the festival premiered his “Margin Call”, a film about the 2008 financial crisis that I described as follows:

The movie has a crackling electricity and very fine dialog rendered in a realistic manner. Throughout the entire film, there is no attempt to offer up a back-story or anything that would make the characters sympathetic. The net effect is like looking at an aquarium full of piranhas and hoping that the glass doesn’t break.

That being said, none of the characters in the film is “evil” in the sense that Gordon Gekko was in “Wall Street”. They are simply doing their job. That is actually what makes the film so powerful. It is not interested in exposing crooks but in putting the financial system under a microscope. That, after all, is what Karl Marx had in mind when he began writing Capital.

At this point in the writing of the article, I turned to the press notes for “All is Lost” that were distributed at the press screening yesterday and was pleased to learn that I was on the right track:

Chandor says the sheer simplicity of the story—and the filmmaking challenge it presented—drew him to make the film. The story has echoes of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and as Dodson describes “ it’s an existential action movie about one man lost at sea, fighting against the elements and himself.”

Finally, a word or two about the sounds that are heard throughout this “silent” film, at least understood as the absence of dialog. The film score is by Alex Ebert, the leader of the indie folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. I can’t remember hearing a score so adept but as unobtrusive as this one and will leave it at that. There’s also the sound engineering used for a wide variety of effects, from that of a yacht coming apart at the seams to ominous distant thunder. I usually don’t pay much attention to this component of a film but in this case I have to tip my hat.

“All is Lost” is on the inside track for Best Picture and Best Actor of the year for our upcoming NYFCO awards meeting and I can’t imagine anything that will surpass it.

October 14, 2013

Dollars and Dentists

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

NY Times October 13, 2013
Patients Mired in Costly Credit From Doctors

The dentist set to work, tapping and probing, then put down his tools and delivered the news. His patient, Patricia Gannon, needed a partial denture. The cost: more than $5,700.

Ms. Gannon, 78, was staggered. She said she could not afford it. And her insurance would pay only a small portion. But she was barely out of the chair, her mouth still sore, when her dentist’s office held out a solution: a special line of credit to help cover her bill. Before she knew it, Ms. Gannon recalled, the office manager was taking down her financial details.

But what seemed like the perfect answer — seemed, in fact, like just what the doctor ordered — has turned into a quagmire. Her new loan ensured that the dentist, Dr. Dan A. Knellinger, would be paid in full upfront. But for Ms. Gannon, the price was steep: an annual interest rate of about 23 percent, with a 33 percent penalty rate kicking in if she missed a payment.

* * * * *

About a month ago I began to feel some pain in a molar on the lower right side of my mouth. I was puzzled since the pain was only felt biting down, unlike the nonstop pain that usually accompanies a cavity.

A visit to my dentist revealed the problem. My tooth had a hairline fracture that extended beneath the gum line. Bacteria was penetrating through the opening in the tooth and causing an infection inside the tooth that was oozing out into the gums. He referred me to a root-canal specialist who took one look at the tooth and told me it had to be extracted.

I went back to the dentist and discussed my options. I could get a bridge, either permanent or removable like the denture described in the Times article above. A permanent bridge involves drilling holes into the two teeth bordering the one that is removed in order to support the bridge and the false tooth it supports. But the best option was what they call a dental implant. This involves putting some bovine bone into the pit beneath the removed tooth to replace the bone that bacteria had eaten away. Once the bone fused with my own, the oral surgeon will put in some hardware into the bone that could support an artificial tooth. I have already had the tooth removed in a procedure that costs $1390. I go back to his office in February to get the implant, which will cost around $3000. That’s just one tooth. What if I develop other fractures? An old friend from Bard College, who was featured in a video I did about Hurricane Sandy’s impact on his neighborhood in Rockaway, is 5 years older than me and just had implants to replace three teeth. The cost? Including extractions, it will come to $20,000.

Puzzled by the fracture itself, I asked my dentist how it could have happened. My wife warned me from time to time about eating hard candy, but more I suspect because the crunching sound annoyed her late at night rather than any threat it posed to my teeth. Could that have been the cause, I asked the dentist. He replied that teeth tended to have a life span. Oh great, another sign of my approaching demise.

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

William Shakespeare, “All’s Well that Ends Well”

I can’t remember exactly when my old friend Tony Long, the creator of massive minimalist sculptures who died of leukemia in 2002, told me this but it has stuck with me over the years. “Louis, you have to take care of your teeth. Can you picture what it will be like if you end up with dentures that you have to put into a glass of water at night? What would some younger woman think of that when you take her to bed?”

Ironically, I have led a charmed life dentally. Except for a wisdom tooth that I had pulled about a decade ago, I have never had an extraction before this one. Not only that, I have not had a filling since living in Houston in 1974. My trips to the dentist for the past forty years have been for cleaning and exams. My dentist told me that it is much more typical for someone my age to be enduring root canal work and bridges or implants on a regular basis.

Despite this, I have had bad dreams over the years of my teeth decaying. My guess is that these dreams and an irrational fear I have of having a tooth pulled (there is zero pain involved plus you get the benefit of a Vicodin prescription) are some kind of Freudian neurotic projection of castration fears. There’s actually a website called http://www.teethfallingoutdream.org/ that tells you everything you need to know, including this:

Dream Psychology: Freud and Jung

The interpretation of teeth falling out in dreams has been widely covered in psychology. Freud associates this symbol to sexual references, such sexual repression or fear of castration for men.

Jung and many other contemporary dream interpreters have a wider perspective and focus their analysis on symbols of personal power and the ability to renew oneself. For instance, they prefer to talk about the representation of loss or the process of releasing the old to give place to the new, as opposed to focusing only on more Freudian sexual references.

On a more mundane level, there’s also my memory of a woeful tale my mother told me when I was 9 years old or so, about to go to a dentist for my first filling. She told me about having a tooth pulled when she was in her teens. It was a painful disaster with the tooth breaking as it was being pulled and the dentist being forced to cut the remainder out with a scalpel—at least that’s the way I remember it.

Leaving aside all the existential dread summed up in the phrase that my Rockaway friend told me–“We are falling apart”–there’s the economics. When I retired from Columbia University, I lost my dental insurance. My wife has a plan through her workplace that covers me but it is utterly useless. I tried to make an appointment about six months ago for a routine checkup but the fucking dentist did not even return my call. In a way, this besides the point since dental insurance generally does not cover implants as a September 30, 2010 NY Times article explained:

An implant to replace a single tooth can cost $3,000 to $4,500, depending on where you live. Implants to replace a full or partial set of teeth can run from $20,000 to as much as $45,000.

Why so much? Implants typically involve the work of both a surgeon and a dentist. Several office visits may be needed to put in the screws and to add the prosthetic teeth.

More dental insurance plans are covering the costs, but the annual reimbursement limit is typically $1,500, an amount that hasn’t changed in four decades. That may be enough to cover half the cost of a single implant; you will end up paying the rest.

Fortunately I don’t need to apply for credit (my oral surgeon thankfully is not set up for this) or borrow money to have the implant done but what if the rest of my teeth start to develop problems? I like the idea of having implants if necessary but not if the cost approaches that of a hip replacement. Maybe going toothless (sans teeth, as Shakespeare put it) is not the worst thing in the world, especially for someone like me who has been married for more than a decade and whose only hope is that I can enjoy another couple of decades of marital bliss.

PBS aired a documentary on “Dollars and Dentists” last year that can be seen at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/dollars-and-dentists/. This is much more about how poor people are being screwed through the new business model of corporate dental chains that cater to poor people on Medicaid, often run out of storefronts like Kool Smiles. If you’d prefer to read a transcript of “Dollars and Dentists”, you can go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/health-science-technology/dollars-and-dentists/transcript-23/. Be prepared to see just one more example of how the wealthy are screwing the poor on every level, from home foreclosures to dental work:

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] FRONTLINE and the Center for Public Integrity have spent the past year investigating the business of Medicaid dentistry and the new corporate model for treating America’s poor kids.

We were able to obtain and analyze Medicaid data from two states, Virginia and Texas. We found that, on average, Kool Smiles used crowns more frequently than other providers on children 8 and under.

In Texas, half of all the restorative care on kids 8 and under, stainless steel crowns, 50 percent more than the state average. Virginia, 50 percent more crowns than average. That’s a big difference than other Medicaid providers. Why?

Dr. POLLY BUCKEY: Our focus is looking at each and every child and looking at where their decay is, what their risk for getting cavities.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s not because the crown pays more?

Dr. POLLY BUCKEY: The focus on each and every child we see is to restore that child to a state of good oral health.

MILES O’BRIEN: Then how do you explain that discrepancy, that difference?

Dr. POLLY BUCKEY: All I can tell is what we do. I can’t tell you what someone else does.

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] Kool Smiles later gave us data comparing itself favorably to other providers. But the company did not address whether kids who visit Kool Smiles are more likely to leave with a crown.

Kari Reyes was not happy with what happened when Marissa went to get her crowns.

KARI REYES: The doctor was shoving the crown into Marissa’s gums, and her gums were bleeding just everywhere. She started screaming like, painful, like a shrieking, painful, scary scream for a mother to hear come out of her child.

MILES O’BRIEN: Kari says she thought Marissa’s local anesthetic had worn off.

KARI REYES: I asked Dr. Collins, I said, you know, “Could you stop and numb her mouth?” She ignored me. So I, you know, just kind of sat there, and I was rubbing Marissa’s legs. And she’s crying and screaming this whole time.

What a nightmare. And certainly a lot worse than anything a middle-class man like me would ever have to put up with. Capitalism sucks, especially when it comes to health care.

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