Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 6, 2015

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Almost as if he were making amends for his last documentary that implicitly took the sides of the U. Cal Berkeley administration against students protesting a tuition hike, Frederick Wiseman’s “In Jackson Heights” is a throwback to the sort of film that made him special. It is a passionate embrace of the downtrodden and the persecuted in a Queens neighborhood that most Manhattanites will have ever stepped foot in. Indeed, even for myself—a devotee of New York neighborhoods where you’ll never find a CVS, a Banana Republic or an HSBC branch—Jackson Heights is almost as faraway and as exotic as Timbuktu. Perhaps the best thing you can say about “In Jackson Heights” is that after seeing the film you’ll want to get on the number 7 train and take the 20-minute trip out to Queens to see it for yourself.

Ironically that physical closeness to Manhattan is what is threatening to turn it into the next Williamsburg, Park Slope or Hoboken. Much of the film is devoted to strategy meetings with Latino small businessmen trying to figure out how to prevent the real estate developer steamroller from gentrifying their neighborhood and turning them into casualties of a process that is making most of greater New York unaffordable.

The villain in the documentary is the Business Improvement District Board, the unseen committee of rich bastards whose goal is to replace all the bodegas with a Whole Foods and every affordable apartment building with sterile-looking, glass-walled condominiums as the Daily News reported on July 23, 2014:

The protracted battle to create a business improvement district along a 20-block stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights has turned nastier still.

Merchants organizing against the BID have expressed fears that the BID would drive up their rents. More recently, they have argued that the lengthy ratification process has been undemocratic.

“They are pressuring us because they want us to vote yes,” said Sergio Ruiz, the owner of a bakery and grocery store on Roosevelt Ave., in a subtitled video recently posted on the Queens Neighborhood United Facebook page. “When I didn’t say yes, I couldn’t sign.”

Wiseman also provides a platform for Jackson Heights’s LGBT activists, including a charismatic transgender Latina (most of the principals in the film are Spanish-speaking) who leads a protest outside a Latin-owned restaurant that refused to serve her (obviously not everybody who is Latino is enlightened.)

Jackson Heights is probably the most ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhood in the entire city, with Latinos constituting the majority. But the film spotlights other groups including Muslims from various parts of the world who are content to live in exactly the same way they did before economic hardship forced them to come to the USA. You see children being drilled into reciting Arabic words just the way I was drilled into learning Hebrew about the same age. Let’s hope they’ll learn what the words mean. I never had a clue about what I was reciting, which is just as well I suppose.

Frederick Wiseman is 85 years old now and a testament to how making art can keep a person alert and productive late in life. I only hope that writing about the art that people like Frederick Wiseman and others are making will keep me half as fit as them.

“In Jackson Heights” opened at the Film Forum in New York on Wednesday. Highly recommended.

“Song of Lahore” is now the third documentary I have seen this year that deals with the state repression of artists. Considering the fact that “Trumbo” opened today as well, there must be something in the air. When filmmakers decide to put their hearts into such a cause, it must mean that they are carrying out the role of an informal vanguard—in many ways eclipsing the so-called ideological vanguard organized in tiny sects.

Lahore had long been a cultural center of South Asia, long before Pakistan was constituted as a nation. In the 1950s and 60s, musicians trained in a hybrid of classical and popular style made good livings providing the musical background to the film industry, the local version of Bollywood.

But when General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977, one of the first things he did was institute Sharia law and cracked down on both film and music that were considered un-Islamic. Not surprisingly, a broad section of the Pakistani ruling class decided to foster the same tendencies in Afghanistan.

The film begins with interviews of a number of musicians in their 50s and 60s who are Pakistan’s version of Dalton Trumbo but without the possibility of using a “front”. When you are an actor or musician, it is impossible to hide your identity when you are on stage.

Eventually Izzat Majeed, a wealthy fan of Lahore’s musicians, decided to launch a new production company called Sachal Studios that would revive their musical legacy. While they were eager to make their music available again in an environment someone less repressive than under Zia-ul-Haq, they faced a problem. The years of malign neglect had eroded the fan base. Young people found themselves adapting to Western popular music, something that in itself is not necessarily bad. After all, cultural globalization helps to spawn new forms of art. When Cuban sailors brought their records to the Congo in the 1950s after all, it gave birth to Soukous, the Congolese rumba.

Indeed, the Sachal musicians calculated that their best bet was to synthesize the native style with American jazz, a move that was not that far-fetched since most of the practitioners were mesmerized by the performances of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong et al who were jazz ambassadors in years past. But the musician who inspired them most of all was Dave Brubeck, whose “Take Five” was the best-selling jazz single of all time. Wikipedia explained how Brubeck created the piece:

Brubeck drew inspiration for this style of music during a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Eurasia, where he observed a group of Turkish street musicians performing a traditional folk song with supposedly Bulgarian influences that was played in 9/8 time (traditionally called “Bulgarian meter”), rarely used in Western music. After learning about the form from native symphony musicians, Brubeck was inspired to create an album that deviated from the usual 4/4 time of jazz and experimented with the exotic styles he had experienced abroad.

As it turns out, Lahore flourished as a cultural center from the onset of Mughals rule. Who are the Mughals, you ask? Well, they were the Turkic-speaking clans of the Mongol Empire—that’s who. As Turks inspired Brubeck, so did his music inspire the Pakistanis.

The film concludes with a triumphant visit of the musicians to New York where they performed with Wynton Marsalis’s big band at Lincoln Center. The film opens at the Angelica Theater in New York on Friday the Thirteenth. Take it from me, this will be your lucky day to see this marvelous film.

Now 61 years old, Michael Moore has been making documentaries since 1989. All of them, including “Where to Invade Next” that opens everywhere in December, are very entertaining and politically on the left. However, the latest film makes me wonder if he is running on vapors.

Knowing nothing about the film except the title, I thought it would be in the same vein as “Fahrenheit 9/11”–war in far-off lands. As it turns out, it is much more like “Sicko” even to the point of being plausibly titled “Sicko Part Two”. If you’ve seen “Sicko”, you’ll recall that it is a tour of European countries where socialized medicine rules. And as he leaves France or England on the way to his destination, he asks why can’t the USA have the same system.

This is the same formula in the new film except it is devoted to a Grand Tour where the European nations are more civilized on a range of other issues. For example, French school kids have great lunches prepared by a skilled chef. When Moore shows them pictures of American cafeteria food, they blanch. Used to drinking water with lunch, he offers one student a can of Coke. She politely takes a sip and then puts it aside.

Portugal no longer jails people from taking drugs. Sitting down with a cop, Moore asks what he would do if he told him that he had a bag of cocaine in his pocket. The cop’s reply: nothing. Norwegian prisoners, except in maximum-security institutions, have the keys to their own cells. In Italy they seem to have five weeks of paid vacation at least.

What is missing from the film is any reference to counter-indications. For example, the words “austerity”, “immigrants” or “ultraright” are not mentioned once. A day after I went to a press screening, I saw a NY Times op-ed that put French beneficence into context:

WHEN I moved to France 12 years ago, it was like arriving in an unfriendly paradise. Sure, hardly anyone spoke to me. But there was national paid maternity leave and free preschool. Practically everyone seemed to agree on the need for strict gun laws, and access to birth control and abortion. Not only did the whole country have health insurance; most undocumented immigrants could get medical and dental care free. (Cruelly, their thermal bath cures weren’t covered.)

But what the headlines don’t say is that daily life in Paris, and in most French cities, is also full of pleasant multicultural experiences. My local cheese stand is owned by a Moroccan lady who’s married to a Serb. My children have public-school classmates who speak Chinese, Italian or Arabic at home. At my twins’ recent birthday, a table of kids descended from Greek, Lebanese, Portuguese and American immigrants insisted on singing “La Marseillaise.”

So when hundreds of thousands of migrants began arriving in Europe, I assumed that France would be welcoming.

It wasn’t. President François Hollande said in September that France would take in an additional 24,000 refugees over the next two years. In a national poll afterward, 70 percent of respondents said 24,000 was “sufficient” or “very sufficient,” and half said they would refuse to accept refugees in their own city.

In the very same edition, the NY Times reported on a French mayor who was once a member of “Reporters Without Borders”, a group that you would think that Michael Moore would strongly identify with. It turns out that the mayor has become a turncoat:

In a past life he was France’s leading advocate for journalists, fighting to spring them from dictators worldwide, a fearless defender of freedom of the press on four continents and a hero to free-speech advocates.

That was then. Now, Robert Ménard, the man who founded Reporters Sans Frontières — Reporters Without Borders — has become a symbol of right-wing extremism in France.

No longer a journalists’ advocate but the mayor of the largest city under far-right control in France, he says there are too many immigrants in his town, too many veils, too many Muslim children and too much culture that is not French.

Mr. Ménard has ordered the laundry off the window ledges, the satellite dishes off the roofs and Syrian refugees out of public housing. He has counted the Muslim children in schools here — a strict no-no in secular France — and increased police patrols on horseback in this whitewashed old Mediterranean city of 70,000 people, high unemployment, high poverty, narrow stone streets and medieval churches.

How can you make a film that ignores such a development? I guess you’ll have to ask Michael Moore himself, a guy who begged Ralph Nader not to run in 2004. You would think that after making a film titled “Capitalism: a Love Story” he would have come to the point of thinking in systemic terms. Unfortunately, Moore has shown very little ability to understand why austerity exists or why it is utopian to expect the USA to adopt socialized medicine or prisons where the inmates have keys to their own cells. It is much more likely that France and Norway will go the route of the USA in a race to the bottom unless the working class wakes up from its slumber and grabs the bosses by their throats and forces concessions from them. We need filmmakers who can throw cold water in their faces right now, not to foster illusions in a welfare state that will come into existence because rich people see it as “good for the country”.


  1. An article on gentrification on the West Coast (specifically SF); another example of the general trend (the deepening of wealth stratification) that Wiseman’s new film deals with in the Jackson Heights microcosm. Note the mention of off-shore money coming into local real estate (for investment) as one cost-driver. Money has no borders internationally, and no sympathy or loyalty locally.


    Comment by manuelgarciajr — November 7, 2015 @ 12:25 am

  2. “Unfortunately, Moore has shown very little ability to understand why austerity exists or why it is utopian to expect the USA to adopt socialized medicine or prisons where the inmates have keys to their own cells. It is much more likely that France and Norway will go the route of the USA in a race to the bottom unless the working class wakes up from its slumber and grabs the bosses by their throats and forces concessions from them.”

    There’s really not much more to be said about Moore, except that he has always viewed class struggle as a primarily social phenomenon instead of an economic one. He rarely challenges the structure of the US political system itself, failing to recognize that it was designed from the inception to suppress workers, women and people of color, and still does.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 9, 2015 @ 5:13 am

  3. Michael Moore has always ignored “the other side” of his stories. In “Sicko” he pretends that a group of American without insurance could enter Cuba and be treated with more warmth and skill than they had been dealt with by American doctors. Likewise with “Where To Invade Next.” While what Louis says of implies is true, that gosh–France, Iceland, Tunisia, Germany, Norway and Slovenia are not Shangri-La, that their progressive ideas have right-wing opposition as Louis points out in Paris–Moore has no responsibility to be balanced since, indeed, documentaries need not show all sides of a story. It’s enough, I believe, for him to point out the ways that these European and North African countries are in some ways superior to ours, largely because they actually stole our ideas–on capital punishment, free education, regulation of business, (and OK not on cafeteria food). It might be that Marie Le Pen could be elected or that more politicians will do about-faces like the Paris journalist who turned anti-immigrant, but in his wholly entertaining, comic documentary, he does give Americans a look at what we might become if we followed the ideas originally thought by our founding fathers and by legislators and ordinary people who followed them. Give Moore a break especially on his ability to entertain–by avoiding the deadly custom of documentarians to offer little more than talking heads and a few cute animations. Docs like “In Jackson Heights” can never be viewed by the masses if they ignore the need to be entertaining but will instead be the domain of intellectuals only.

    Comment by Harvey — January 1, 2016 @ 4:26 am

  4. […] safety net created by the Marshall Plan. Yet Louis Proyect has already provided a foil to this in a decent review of the […]

    Pingback by Whither Proletarian Cinema? — January 10, 2016 @ 8:27 pm

  5. It wasn’t. President François Hollande said in September that France would take in an additional 24,000 refugees over the next two years. In a national poll afterward, 70 percent of respondents said 24,000 was “sufficient” or “very sufficient,” and half said they would refuse to accept refugees in their own city.

    Fair enough, everybody, every country, has a breaking point. But what has the response been to the arrival of Middle Eastern refugees from the majority of Americans? How many tens of thousands have Republican politician pledged to take into the US?

    Comment by Peter DM — February 11, 2016 @ 7:58 pm

  6. […] rec.arts.movies.reviews observes, “Take it from me, this will be your lucky day to see this marvelous film.” […]

    Pingback by Here Is TV | Song of Lahore — May 17, 2016 @ 9:13 am

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