Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2016

Salero; Vita Activa

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Scheduled for screening at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, N.C. between April 7-10 and the San Francisco Film Festival on April 30 through May 3rd, Mike Plunkett’s “Salero” is a documentary about one of the last saleros in Bolivia, men who harvest salt from the vast plateau Salar de Uyuni—underneath which lies the gargantuan lithium deposits that some describe as having the possibility of turning Bolivia into a kind of Saudi Arabia based on the sale of a mineral needed for batteries and other industrial uses.

The salero is one Moises Chambri Yucra, a Quechean Indian in his thirties who lives with his wife and two young sons in a tiny village called Colchani in fairly primitive conditions and on the edge of poverty, largely as a result of a declining demand for the home-grown table salt he peddles to vendors in Uyuni, a small city that is the hub of the burgeoning lithium mining industry.

Equipped with nothing but a pick-ax and shovel, he drives each day to the salt flats and gathers the mineral into piles, which are then loaded into the back of his truck and transported back to his village to be ground down for table use. When the film begins, you hear Moises musing over the first moon landing in 1969, recounting the sense of awe that overcame Neil Armstrong. As you see the snow-white sea of salt surrounded by mountains beneath Moises’s feet, you will feel the same kind of awe. This is an utterly remote region of Bolivia whose citizens are peripheral to the economic and political life of the country but in whose name Evo Morales has governed—up until recently.

Cinematically, the film is utterly stunning. Every landscape shot of the salt flats can take your breath away, especially when you hear Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie’s film score in the background. His music has the ambient quality of Brian Eno or Phillip Glass but with much more drama. It is the perfect aural accompaniment for a natural world that is unlike anything you have seen in a film before. If “Salero” consisted of nothing but such images and Wiltzie’s music, it would still be worth seeing just like Phillip Glass’s “Koyaanisqatsi”.

But is more than that. It is a portrait of assimilation, though one not like the kind that the conquistadores forced on Bolivia Indians in the 16th century onwards but one that is market-driven. Moises is a man with a keen idea of indigenous struggles in his country, including the role of Potosi in supplying the silver that would make Europe wealthy. He wonders if the lithium jackpot will be part of Bolivia’s ongoing agony even if his president promises that it will relieve his peoples’ poverty.

The film shows Evo Morales arriving in Uyuni to much fanfare and giving speeches about how lithium will benefit the people. Moises remains skeptical. He doesn’t like Uyuni or any other city for that matter since they are about nothing but money. His pleasure comes from his family, especially teaching his young sons Quechean songs that they sing to his delight in their own language.

I strongly recommend the film to people in the Durham and San Francisco area. It is an extraordinary work that has a powerful social message combined with fine art. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Opening at the Film Forum in NY on April 6th, “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” is an absorbing portrait of the philosopher best known for the controversy sparked by her New Yorker Magazine coverage of the 1961 Adolph Eichmann trial that contained the words that would condemn her in the eyes of many Jews, liberals and Israeli politicians: “the banality of evil”.

The film gives extensive coverage to her views on this matter that interviewee Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College and a former student of Arendt’s, were distorted all out of proportion. Since Botstein is an ardent Zionist, this is quite a statement. I was particularly interested in the film since I had a connection not only to Botstein (as a gadfly over the years) but also to her close friend Hans Jonas, who I studied philosophy with at the New School in 1965-1967. Unlike his fellow Zionist Botstein, Jonas emerges as one of the unforgiving in an interview. Although he is not seen in film footage, Heinrich Blucher—Arendt’s husband from the late 30s until his death in 1970—figures prominently in the film largely through the recitation of his love letters to her and hers to him. I studied with Blucher at Bard College in the early 60s and consider him a major influence on my intellectual development. Blucher was a member of the German Communist Party and a veteran of street battles with the Nazis during the Weimar Republic. He eventually became disillusioned with Marxism (or at least the bogus version he identified with) and became part of the circle around Karl Jaspers that included Arendt and Jonas. The film includes recitations of the correspondence between Jaspers and Arendt that are mostly focused on philosophy and politics, as well as that between Heidegger and Arendt that are only about their controversial love affair. A number of the interviewees consider her willingness to forgive Heidegger after WWII a serious error in judgment.

The core of the film deals with her analysis of Nazism within the context of her philosophical stance against “ideology” and “idealism”. She blames them for the rise of both Nazism and Communism (ie. Stalinism):

Ideologies—isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise—are a very recent phenomenon and, for many decades, this played a negligible role in political life. Only with the wisdom of hindsight can we discover in them certain elements which have made them so disturbingly useful for totalitarian rule. Not before Hitler and Stalin were the great political potentialities of the ideologies discovered.

I am not surprised that the film stepped around some of Arendt’s key philosophical precepts, including this one. Although it is a dramatic story covering all the bases—her affair with Heidegger, the Eichmann trial, her disillusionment with Zionism—there is not much in the way of intellectual engagement in an otherwise stimulating documentary.

After graduating Bard College, it took me two years to get past the same kind of analysis about the perils of ideology I got from her husband. I obviously needed to dump existentialism and liberalism to become a revolutionary socialist. (I doubt anything can shake me from my Marxist beliefs at this point since the NY Times reminds me of the horrors of capitalism every morning.) In 1961 Blucher asked me to prepare a report on the Communist Manifesto, expecting me to echo the kind of liberal anti-Communism that was fashionable at the time. Not just from Arendt but Albert Camus and Daniel Bell as well. But the whole idea of Marxism was so remote from my intellectual universe that I could not begin to make sense of the Manifesto.

The film was directed by Ada Ushpiz, an Israeli filmmaker who has written for Ha’aretz. She obviously has an affinity with Arendt’s anti-Zionism as illustrated by her last film “Good Garbage” that identifies with poor Palestinians recycling junk tossed out by Israeli settlers in Hebron. From the Ha’aretz review:

The impoverished village was hit hard by unemployment. In the film we see and hear what Ushpiz, the narrator, calls the “third generation of the occupation”: a generation that has lost faith in the prospect of ever leading a free life. In the middle of shooting, officials from the Hebron municipality, accompanied by representatives of the World Bank, show up with a plan to turn the dump into a garbage-recycling site. In that way they would “save” the children. The film documents the World Bank’s Good Samaritan attempt to end a bad situation and found a cooperative. The film’s creators trace the collapse of this attempt.

I imagine that if Hannah Arendt were still alive, she would be proud of both films.

(For a more extensive analysis of Hannah Arendt’s ideas, here is something I wrote prompted by the Margerethe Von Trotta biopic: https://louisproyect.org/2014/02/01/the-hannah-arendt-industry/)

March 29, 2016

More stupidity from Jacobin

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

Greg Shupak

Since support for the Assad killing machine is generally associated with Putin worship and Stalin nostalgia, Jacobin continues to surprise by publishing the kind of crap you’d expect to read on WSWS.org or Global Research but not in a magazine that is in the DSA/Dissent Magazine neck of the woods. There were hopes that the magazine might have wised up at this point but Greg Shupak’s article on ISIS persuades me that the editorial board is still covered in muck—at least on this question.

Titled “The Case Against Bombing ISIS” (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/isis-united-states-iraq-syria/), Shupak repackages all the hoary source material that has appeared already on Jacobin, Salon (courtesy of Patrick L Smith), Counterpunch, DissidentVoice, Information Clearing House, Moon of Alabama, Consortium News, VoltaireNet, Veteran’s Today, Infowars and countless other websites that echo RT.com and Press TV.

Shupak states: “a Democratic president helped produce the conditions for ISIS’s rise in Syria.” Gosh, that’s news to me. I always thought it was Assad releasing jihadists out of prison, barrel bombing the FSA while ignoring ISIS, and generally creating a sectarian logic that was responsible but then again why would we want to assign any blame to someone who was profiled in Mademoiselle Magazine, got a red carpet treatment from Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth, and received 90 percent of the vote in Syria. Yeah, I know. It was an election that excluded opposition parties but nobody’s perfect.

To prove his case, Shupak dredges up material that has been used ad infinitum. He cites the generally reliable Aron Lund on the growth of Islamism in the Syrian revolt but a careful reading of the article must single out a key phrase: that “secular activism” is being “squeezed out of the uprising entirely”. This is the problem with the passive voice. It fudges over agency. Who is doing the squeezing? In fact, it was the Baathists who began killing protesters and other members of “civil society” in 2011—if you want to call that “squeezing”. By killing young activists who sought human rights and economic justice, a vacuum was created for militants who were more Islamist in their outlook. This was exactly what Assad sought. By representing himself as a democratically elected secular leader, he could hoodwink the left into believing that he was the “lesser evil”.

Far less authoritative is a classified intelligence document that Shupak cited. It first appeared on Judicial Watch, a rightwing website that like many others, including David Horowitz’s Front Page, supports Assad. As is always the case from the amen corner, Shupak claims that the article reveals that the West and its allies supported the growth of a Salafist movement that could “isolate the Syrian regime” . I have yet to see a single one of these articles refer to the last paragraph that states such a development would have “dire consequences” for Iraq as well as constituting a “grave danger” for both Syria and Iraq. Does any of this matter for the Greg Shupaks of the world who traffic in Orwellian double-think? Doesn’t he care about journalistic integrity? After all, he teaches this shit to students. Apparently not. The ends justify the means even if you are a media studies professor.

He cites General Martin Dempsey as an expert on how America’s allies were funding ISIS but most serious analysts of the region point out that this group is largely self-funding, a result of taxing citizens unlucky enough to be under its control. (Not to discredit Dempsey, but this is the General who Seymour Hersh claims was disobeying Obama and collaborating with Russia in the war on ISIS—not exactly someone with no skin in the game as they put it.) It hardly bolsters Shupak’s case when he tells us that Vice President Biden “said the same thing”. You might as well say that Pee Wee Herman said the same thing. Testimony from his panel of experts concludes with Joshua Landis, who believes that 80 percent of American weapons have ended up in al-Nusra’s hands in Syria. This is the same Joshua Landis who advised NY Times readers in 2005 that “For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority.” I guess that’s another way to describe putting “the squeeze” on the riffraff. Fortunately for the USA, Assad was only too happy to oblige. He, like Gaddafi, participated in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program that resulted in men being kidnapped under legal cover and sent off to be tortured in Libya and Syria.

The idea that the USA is still set on “regime change” in Syria can only be maintained by a cynical avoidance of the facts. The same CIA upon whose behalf Assad tortured kidnapping victims had a training program for Syrian rebels that required them to sign a contract promising that their weapons would not be used against Baathist troops. This was a 500-billion-dollar program that fell apart not long after it was initiated. Who knows where the money went? Certainly not for MANPAD’s that could have made Syria a graveyard for the MiG’s that were bombing working class apartment buildings, open air markets, schools, hospitals and the like. Only 60 men completed the training. For a government that was supposedly determined to topple Assad, the Obama administration certainly did not act that way. Of course, people who had been paying careful attention to Syria knew all along what Obama would reveal to Jeffrey Goldberg: he had no intention of removing Assad.

Obama, unlike liberal interventionists, is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,” Obama once told me). Bush and Scowcroft removed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991, and they deftly managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Scowcroft also, on Bush’s behalf, toasted the leaders of China shortly after the slaughter in Tiananmen Square.

One can understand why Jacobin would publish such garbage. We realize that most leftists are tinged with Islamophobia. Given the constant barrage of propaganda against immigrants from the Middle East, the popularity of Bill Maher, the glee of Sanders supporters over Islamophobe Tulsi Gabbard joining his campaign, the nonstop propaganda campaign against Syrian rebels in a wide spectrum of the left that is essentially warmed over Christopher Hitchens will likely have the effect of the ringing of a bell for Pavlov’s dogs. Please excuse me for my refusal to salivate.




March 26, 2016

The “We Can” Moment in Vijayawada, South India

Filed under: india,racism,repression,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

A guest post by Vijaya Kumar Marla


 Kanhaiya Kumar, President of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union. 

Usually any charged atmosphere with a large number of people can metamorphose in to a frenzy and mob violence. But in Vijayawada (capital city of the state of Andhra Pradesh), on the evening of 24th March 2016, a large number of people had gathered in anticipation of hearing Kanhaiya Kumar, the rage among youth and students of this country. His posters are on display everywhere, as we reached the city from the airport.

I was accompanying him on his trip from Hyderabad to Vijayawada. When he got down from the airport bus at the arrival lounge, the appreciative glances of the policemen deployed there towards Kanhaiya could not escape my attention. Is this the same Kanhaiya Kumar who had recounted his tête-à-tête with police while he was in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on trumped-up charges of shouting anti-India slogans in his university, in his now famous address at JNU on 3rd March? I think that conversation of Kanhaiya with a constable in the jail and the way he recounted it has an impact on policemen all over the country. After all, day-in and day-out we often come across politicians blaming police for brutality and atrocities, which are not entirely without substance. But an incisive analysis and comment by a young man just released from jail, saying that the police are also ordinary human beings like us and that they are helpless in many aspects when they had to practice their profession under heavy stress and the mention of their meager wages has had an impact on the police. Lo, here is a young man, charged with sedition and beaten up by goons in the presence of full police force and being hounded in the social media and the net, and now being accompanied by police escorts as if he is a top law maker, all the way from airport to his meeting place.

I have not seen so much love and hatred being displayed against one man in the Internet. The venomous hatred appears to be mostly manufactured in the IT office of the Hindutva (Rightist Hindu) brigade. There are no limits on indecency and anyone who objects to the foul language on display is immediately targeted. Sometimes, I wonder, all this spewing of venom and attacking everyone will not work against the Hindutva brigade? What about all the laws about decency on the net? Or do they not apply to the net-storm troopers of the ruling party? On our way to the meeting hall, we found hundreds of people lining up with garlands at many places to greet this young man. He had to stop at a few places to greet them and receive the flowers. TV cameras were hounding us throughout our journey, even as we signaled to them that Kanhaiya is not in our car. As we neared the meeting place, it was a thorough chaos. The whole traffic in the area is jammed with vehicles and we had to make our way by foot, snaking through bikes and parked cars. We heard a commotion, with two not so young men, in saffron scarves, being pushed out of the meeting hall.

By that time, Kanhaiya was safely escorted inside by a big team of red shirted volunteers. I have seen thousands of young people wearing white T-shirts with pictures of Rohit Vemula and Kanhaiya. The police were trying to halt the Leftist youth from charging on to the two BJP youth wing men, who tried to raise anti-Kanhaiya slogans. An obviously working class woman in her forties was seen shouting at the BJP men and urging the Leftist students to trash them. That was the general mood outside the hall. And such scenes are not uncommon in a politically active city of Vijayawada. As we were ushered in to the hall on the first floor, we found the huge hall jam-packed with students wearing Rohit-Kanhaiya T-shirts and redshirts. From the badges they were wearing, I could gather that they belong to various student organizations, AISF (CPI), SFI (CPIM), PDSU (CPI-ML) and a sprinkling of NSUI (Congress). There were many elderly and middle aged people, obviously from Leftist parties. The National Secretary of CPI, Dr. K. Narayana was seen standing near the wall.

I was seated near-by where he was standing and I had seen people offering him their seat. He politely refused and I had seen A.P State Secretaries of CPI and CPM sitting in the audience, as mere spectators. Then there was commotion again, as a lone BJP youth tried to shout some slogans, but he was quickly overpowered and I have seen him losing his shirt in the mêlée. He was picked up by the police and taken away. I have seen the large hall completely jam-packed, with almost half the people standing along the walls, as there were no seats. With soany thousands of people inside, he hall was hot and stuffy, with the mercury touching 43°C (110°F) outside. I am recounting this as a spectator to the event. The press had given undue coverage to the BJP youth who tried to shout slogans unsuccessfully. This sort of a political friction is not unusual at many places in India. Kanhaiya Kumar was the main speaker and as he was invited to speak, he asked whether he should speak in Hindi or English. The audience chose Hindi, which was surprising.

But from the response he got, I understood that Hindi films had their effect on the people of Vijayawada, where only Telugu is spoken, unlike in Hyderabad. He started with the attack on universities by the BJP government and charged that the upper class mindset could not tolerate poor students from backward regions and lower castes entering the portals of the hallowed institutions such as JNU and HCU and learning to question the prevalent inequalities and social discrimination. “Besides our subjects, we also learn and discuss issues that affect our lives and I believe this is a part of our process of enlightenment. We don’t want to go to the streets shouting slogans. Given a peaceful atmosphere, we would like to spend our time in class rooms and in the library. It is they who are preventing us from continuing our studies. They want to limit the intellectual space in the universities all across the country to the cage of Hindutva ideology and we are opposing this process of indoctrination.”

The ruling ideology of Hindutva wants to create binaries of ‘us vs. them’ in the name of Bharat Mata (Mother India). Whoever does not say, “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Hail Mother India) is anti-national, they allege. But we say, our Bharat Mata is not the same as your Bharat Mata. Your Bharat Mata is a glamorous lady, bejeweled and wearing a saffron sari, symbolizing the rich. Our Bharat Mata is a Dalit  (untouchable caste) woman, emaciated, wearing rags and working in the fields under the hot sun, a mother who struggles to feed her children, a mother who works as a village social worker, a mother or sister who works in the factories, drives a bus, pilots an airplane.. This is out Bharat Mata.” He said that he had met Rohit Vemula’s mother (The Dalit scholar who had committed suicide unable to bear the brunt of social discrimination in Hyderabad Central University in January this year) and told her that he will continue the struggle until social discrimination ends. We want Left and Dalit voices to come together.

Besides this unity, we are struggling to build a broad rainbow coalition of all oppressed working people, who have to fight this communal and neo-liberal virus with all the might we could gather. This is a long fight, but the victory will be ours. He further said that India has 700 million young people and Modi had captured power promising Rs. 150 thousands in everyone’s bank account from recovered black money and 100 million jobs. This is a false promise and now he and his government have to face the ire of the youth for their deceit. Modi says that he will build a modern India with Hi-Tech industries and make India the world’s manufacturing hub, with the slogan of “Make-in-India.” I question him, when 75% of young job aspirants in this country have less than 5th standard qualification and they cannot get a job in any modern industry, how are you going to provide 100 million jobs.

The previous government under DR. Manmohan Singh and now Modi’s government are cutting expenditure on education, cutting down assistance to poor and lower caste students. Unable to bear the cost of private education, they are leaving schools. Unless the government spends a large amount of money on public education and health, it is questionable how you can prepare the youth to work in modern industry. He stressed the need for Left Parties to come together, putting aside their differences. He said young people of his generation, those who are born after 1985 could not understand why the communist movement had to split into so many splinter groups. “Let us come together, put aside the differences of the past and start talking to the people about their problems in a jargon which they understand.”

His appeal struck a chord with the thousands who were listening to him in rapt attention. There was a thunderous applause of approval. Having seen for the last 45 years how the various Left groups fought pitched battles among themselves, it was a pleasant feeling for me to see them sitting together and listening to a young man, young enough to be their son, urging them to bury the past differences and come together to fight the bigger enemy. I have seen leaders of various Left groups embracing each other and recalling the good old days when as young men, they fought together under one flag. At the end of his hour long speech, he recited the now famous song that he sang at a meeting immediately before his arrest on February 11, 2016 at Jawaharlal Nehru University. It goes like this:


Aazadi (Hind/Urdu for freedom)

Aazadi from Hunger

Aazadi from poverty

Aazadi from unemployment

Aazadi from capitalism

Aazadi from Manuvad (BJP’s Hindu politics)

Aazadi from caste discrimination

We don’t want freedom FROM India, we want freedom IN India

There was a thunderous clapping and shouts of Aazadi (freedom) from the participants, young and old. It was electric movement, highly charged with enthusiasm, a markedly noticeable charged feeling that “WE CAN” fight together and defeat the bigger enemy, the fascist BJP.


Kanhaiya Kumar addressing his fellow students at JNU, Deli on March 3rd 2016, immediately after his release from Jail on trumped up charges of sedition. The address was telecast live on all the TV channels till midnight and it is reported that it is the most viewed even in recent time. This speech had elevated him to national level politics and he had become a rage among youth.


Kanhaiya Kumar singing his famous Aazadi (freedom song)

Picture5A student demonstration in Delhi demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar and his friends.



Kanhaiya Kumar being roughed up by BJP goons in the presence of police in the Delhi Court premises on 15th February 2016.


A BJP goon boasting about his group’s attack on Kanhaiya Kumar in the Indian Court in the presence of police. He was let off within hours of his being taken in to token police custody.


 A BJP/RSS version of Mother India                   


Picture10 Picture9

The Left’s image of Mother India (representative) 


Kanhaiya Kumar addressing the Vijayawada Meet of united Left Students 


 A section of the participants, with the leaders of various CPs in the foreground  

March 25, 2016

Re-imagining Miles Davis and Chet Baker

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:10 pm

Just by coincidence apparently, two narrative films open this week in theaters everywhere about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, trumpet players that were noted for their “cool” style and debilitating drug habits. They both can be described as attempts to “re-imagine” the musicians, a choice made by screenwriters and directors to avoid being confined by biopic conventions. Indeed, the term “biofic” might be coined to describe this genre since it blends fact and fiction, often at the expense of both art and the artist whose lives they seek to make more “dramatic”.

Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” is a total disaster. It is based on the premise that he bonded with a white Rolling Stone reporter who had come to his upper west side townhouse in the late 70s when the jazz legend had retired from the music scene and into a self-imposed cocaine haze. At first you are impressed with Cheadle’s ability to mimic his chronic hoarseness and glowering manner but it shortly becomes tiresome since it is a poor substitute for character development. There is a bit of mystery about why Davis stopped playing but it is obviously beyond the ability of Cheadle to offer some insights into why this happened.

It has been many years since I read Ian Carr’s “Miles Davis: the definitive biography” (a rather overweening title but accurate nonetheless). As I recall the section that dealt with his cocaine addiction and hermit-like existence on the upper west side is deeply compelling. Carr attributed the departure to a combination of sheer exhaustion from performing over a thirty-year period, physical ailments, and a paranoid tendency that made him want to avoid social contact. Once the cocaine habit kicked in, these tendencies were accentuated to the point of making it very difficult to break out of his shell.

Cheadle made an utterly inexplicable artistic decision to turn what could have been a powerful human drama into something resembling a Miami Vice episode. After Davis and the reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) show up at the head of Columbia records to wrangle over a tape that might serve as his return to recording and performing, it is purloined by a shady white executive and guarded by his gun-toting Black bodyguard. This leads to a series of confrontations involving car chases and gun battles that turn the jazz legend into a character out of a gangsta rap-inspired movie like “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”. In depicting the Rolling Stone reporter and Miles Davis as Black and white “buddies” taking on bad guys, it has the same kind of vibe as “Miami Vice”, “I Spy” or “48 Hours” but without the electricity. The film not only fails to deliver on Miles Davis the man but on the pop culture ambitions that Cheadle mistakenly took on.

In an interview with Rolling Stone (naturally), Cheadle explained what he was attempting:

Then, almost as an afterthought, I said, “I think we’ve got to make a movie about this dude as a gangster” — ’cause that’s how I feel about Miles Davis. He’s a G. All those apocryphal stories about how bold and dynamic he was, the gangster shit he’d do … you could fit all that into a biopic, I guess. But I just thought, let’s do a movie that Miles Davis would say, ‘I want to be the star of that movie. Not the one about me. The one where I’m the fucker running it, and I tell everybody what happens.’

I had high hopes for this film based on a snippet that appeared on YouTube early on. It showed Davis performing a number from “Porgy and Bess” backed by Gil Evans and a full orchestra, petty much a recreation of a YouTube video that depicted the original performance.

In my fondest imagination, I saw the next scene with Gil Evans and Miles Davis sitting over dinner discussing racism or their love lives. Foolish me.

While I can recommend Robert Budreau’s “Born to Be Blue” as a serviceable drama starring Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker, it too takes liberties with the musician’s life in order to frame the story around a familiar plot that ostensibly catered to the audience’s expectations, namely a troubled romance between the musician and a Black actress named Jane who is entirely made up.

Not only was she a fiction, she was also supposedly playing Baker’s first wife in a biopic film within the film—an African-American as well. In fact, none of Baker’s wives were Black and the only purpose in introducing such a character was to serve as a peg in the plot development. When Baker meets her parents, they look askance at the musician who—like Davis—is temporarily out of the business. Not only is a longtime junky, he is second-rate compared to Davis in the opinion of Jane’s dad.

In an earlier scene, when Baker meets Miles Davis at a club in Los Angeles in the early 50s when Baker was voted over Davis in a Downbeat poll as musician of the year, Davis contemptuously tells him that he was “the great white hope”.

Besides Chet Baker and Jane, the other major character is Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), the founder of Pacific Jazz records, the label that marketed the so-called West Coast style and where Baker was once a major figure until heroin sank him into oblivion, deepened by a beating Baker suffered on the streets of New York that left him without his front teeth.

For most men in the music business, including club owners, agents and other musicians, Baker had become untouchable. In a poignant scene, Baker shows up at Bock’s elegant home in Los Angeles to plead for a second chance. After Bock turns him away, Baker picks up a potted plant with the intention (we assume) of tossing it at the front door. Catching him approaching the door, Bock intercedes and decides to give him a second chance. Like all other films about musicians with a drug habit redeeming themselves such as those about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, “Born to Be Blue” moves along a fairly predictable but likeable story of overcoming the odds.

Unlike the Miles Davis story, I had little knowledge about Baker’s life except the bare essentials. To give me a perspective on “Born to Be Blue”, I saw the highly regarded 1988 Bruce Weber documentary “Let’s Get Lost” (99 cents on Amazon streaming).

Made a year before his death, the result of falling from a second story window in an Amsterdam hotel (an apparent suicide), Baker is the epitome of the ravages left by a lifetime of heroin addiction. With his scabrous features and half-closed eyes, speaking barely above a whisper, Baker appears more dead than alive. Weber obviously found this “late” Chet Baker as photogenic after a fashion, just as he and other photographers had found the young Baker an irresistible Adonis.

In the early 50s, Baker was a combination of James Dean and an idealized version of a jazz musician that many young people were attracted to like moths to a flame, especially the women that Baker collected, exploited and then abandoned like a used condom.

They are interviewed in the film and in many ways are far more interesting than Baker, including the singer Ruth Young who had Baker pegged as a loser even though she found him irresistible. She is funny, smart and articulate—full of life as opposed to the walking dead Chet Baker. Her appraisal of Baker is consistent with the one made in “Born to Be Blue” but if your only knowledge of the trumpeter is based on these two films made by obvious fans, you don’t know the half of it.

In a two-part article (part one, part two) on Chet Baker for CounterPunch based on a 440-page biography by James Gavin, Jeff St. Clair reveals someone much more like Mr. Hyde than the Dr. Jekyll of the two films.

Baker was a beater. He would berate and slap and punch his wives and girlfriends, often in public. His wife Carol was repeatedly seen sporting a pair of black eyes. He tried to strangle his longtime girlfriend Ruth Young with a telephone cord and later broke into her apartment, looted the place and sold her grand piano to pay for drugs.

There is only a fleeting reference to Baker’s violence in the documentary, and none in the biopic. The directors obviously preferred to create an image of a man more preyed upon than a predator. “Re-imagining” Chet Baker might be more accurately described as sanitizing him.

He had it in for gays as well as women:

In keeping with his other prejudices, Baker was something of a homophobe and his growing mystique in the gay community of LA and San Francisco unnerved him. He was determined to set the record straight. “There was a very mixed reaction when I started singing,” Baker said. “In the first place, a lot people thought – foolishly so – that because of the way I sang I, y’know, liked fellars or something. I can only say that that’s a lot of bullshit.”

Not only that, he seemed to be the sort of person who would vote for Donald Trump:

Years later Baker came to resent Davis and other black musicians. He deprecated Davis’ revolutionary second Quintet and his excursions into fusion. “They aren’t even songs,” Baker fumed. He couldn’t play the music and didn’t understand it. Chet was also an early proponent of the notion of reverse discrimination. He believed that music critics didn’t take white musicians seriously and that he was being denied gigs and record deals because he was white.

Superficially alike as practitioners of a post-bebop “cool” style in the mid-50s, there were major differences between Davis and Baker both in terms of conception and execution. This is dramatized in their respective performances of “My Funny Valentine”, a tune that both musicians were identified with.

Without going into too many details, Miles Davis’s performance has a burning intensity while Baker’s is merely “pretty” by comparison. Ultimately, Miles Davis’s jazz is rooted in the blues tradition and can even be seen as a variation on Louis Armstrong with its bent notes and highly developed syncopation. Despite the fact that he preferred ballads as did Baker, there was always a feeling that the the slow tempo was much more akin to lava flowing down the side of a volcano than Tin Pan Alley.

I remember the day I became a Miles Davis fan. It was the summer of 1961 and I was sitting in a pizza parlor on Friday night when someone played “Summertime” on the jukebox, a tune off of Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” album. My jaw dropped. What was that?

During my four years at Bard College, nobody ever played Chet Baker records in the dorm. The West Coast style was not exactly calculated to win the allegiance of aspiring beatniks. Indeed, as one interviewee in the Weber documentary put it, Baker’s sound was as rooted in the Los Angeles zeitgeist as the Beach Boys. Sunshine, girls and convertibles. And, just as was the case with Brian Wilson, it had nothing to do with Baker’s dark soul.

After graduating Bard, I gravitated to the New Thing in jazz, an avant-garde movement that bypassed Miles Davis and eventually became closely associated with the Black nationalist movement especially through the efforts of Archie Shepp who in many ways was simply extending the vision of predecessors like Max Roach and Art Blakey Jr.

Later on, as the New Thing faded (as did the Black nationalist movement that inspired it), I began to give West Coast jazz a hearing. Although this style is obviously associated with white musicians like Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, it is wrong to assume that there was some kind of Chinese Great Wall that separated them. Keep in mind that the great Art Pepper, who made an echt West Coast record titled “Art Pepper + Eleven” led by Marty Paich, a West Coast figure of some stature, he also recorded with Miles Davis’s rhythm section in 1957 (Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones). If you heard this record without knowing the principals, you’d likely assume that Pepper was Black.

Also keep in mind that Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaborated on the “Birth of the Cool” record made in 1950 but that was first released in 1957. Two of the lead soloists besides Davis were associated with the burgeoning West Coast style: Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan.

My idea of a jazz film, either narrative or documentary, would explore how styles came into existence. For me, the development of a record like “Birth of the Cool” was far more dramatic than Miles Davis’s cocaine habit. Indeed, the most interesting moment in the Weber documentary involves the origins of the Mulligan/Baker pianoless quartet. It turns out that the two musicians were booked at the Haig, a small LA club, in 1952. When they arrived, they discovered that the piano had been removed from the stage since vibraphonist Red Norvo’s trio (an amazing group with Charlie Mingus on bass and Tal Farlow on guitar) had no need of the grand piano that had been brought in for an earlier engagement by Errol Garner. Once it had been stowed away in the cellar, Mulligan and Baker decided not to bother with a pianist. The result was considered one of the great moments in jazz and an indication of what Baker could have become if he hadn’t gotten hooked on heroin.

March 24, 2016

The meanings of Purim

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Last night Nova, a PBS program, aired a show titled “Secrets of Noah’s Ark” that can be seen on Youtube:

I think most people who have taken religion, civilization or world history classes in college know that the book of Noah was “borrowed” from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a classic of Babylonian culture. When it was written, Babylon was the largest city in the world with 200,000 inhabitants. Today its ruins can be seen about 53 miles south of Baghdad.

There’s a reference to the city in the book of Genesis, the so-called Tower of Babel that was in all likelihood the ziggurat known as Etemenaki, a pyramid-like structure that was the centerpiece of Babylonian architecture. In the Old Testament, the tower was made by people who all spoke the same language. Because the builders supposedly aspired to have it reach the heavens, the deity got mad at them for being prideful, forced them to speak different languages, and then scattered them across the earth. There’s some uncertainty about the etymology of Babel since in Hebrew it means confusion–implying that the reference to Babylon is inaccurate. Whatever the case may be, scholars generally agree that the story had the Etemenaki in mind, the 300-foot-tall ziggurat in Babylon.

In 578 BC, the Judeans stopped paying tribute to the Babylonians who took retribution by marching off their elite to the city of Babylon, the so-called Babylonian exile—an event that is described as a calamity by official Judaism.

What makes the PBS Nova show interesting is its departure from this narrative. If you go to 40:00 of the Nova video, you will hear from archaeologist Cornelia Wunsch who states that the Jews did “reasonably well” there. Another scholar concurs with her, saying that very soon after being integrated in the city, “things got good”. They became “well ensconced in the Babylonian economy and did well.”

Another scholar looks at a written record that describes a Judean as having both a Jewish and a Babylonian identity, indeed the kind of status that would be enjoyed by Jews in the Middle East and North Africa for millennia. Part of the Judean culture involved writing the stories that would be collected into the Old Testament or what the Jews called the Tanakh.

Irving Finkel, a British scholar of the period, believes that it was not just the Epic of Gilgamesh that influenced the Judean scribes. He points to the story of King Sargon, who was placed in a basket of reeds on the water to save him from those who would prevent him from becoming a monarch. Surely this must have worked its way into the story of Moses.

As it happens, today is a Jewish holiday that is considered minor by religious authorities. Falling on the 14th day of Adar in the Hebrew calendar, which is March 24 in the Gregorian, Purim is considered to be on the same level as Hanukah and pretty much devoid of the piety of Passover or Yom Kippur. Like Hanukah, it is a nationalist tale of the plucky Jews fending off the gentiles.

This time it is not the Babylonians who are the bad guys but the Persians. Haman, the Viceroy of King Xerxes, has decided to kill all the Jews living in Persia after their leader Mordecai got on his wrong side. Queen Esther, a Jew who had married the King without him knowing her ethno-religious roots, interceded on her people’s behalf and convinced the King to execute Haman. As is generally the case in these brutal Old Testament stories, the King gives the Jews the green light to kill anybody they considered their enemy:

The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King Xerxes was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar. (New International Version)

In the Wikipedia entry on Purim, we learn that some scholars believe that this story, like the ones alluded to above, was borrowed from Babylonian literature. Among them are Amnon Netzer and Shaul Shaked who argue that the names “Mordecai” and “Esther” are similar to those of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar (the same name of the Elaine May film that was crucified by critics but like “Heaven’s Gate” has gleaned more favorable reviews the older it gets.) Whether or not there is a Babylonian connection, few serious scholars believe that it is based on true events.

Sensing the contradictions of the Book of Esther, one Rabbi Irving Greenberg, went so far as to group Esther and Mordecai as assimilated Jews after the fashion of those who “did well” in the Babylonian exile:

Today, Purim is a quintessential Jewish holiday. To every little boy and girl who masquerades on Purim, Mordecai and Esther are arch-heroes of Jewishness. But a good case can be made that Mordecai and Esther, too, may have been quite integrated in Persian life and that Purim is the holiday brought to you by assimilated Jews.

What kind of Jews were Mordecai and Esther? Obviously, the answer has to be a speculation, and their record of saving the Jews speaks for itself. Still…

First, there is the matter of their names. Esther’s name probably is derived from Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, and Mordecai’s name from Marduk, a Babylonian god. Equivalent names today might well be Mary and Christopher. Of course, committed Jews in open societies also adopted Gentile names. My parents, Orthodox Jews, wanted an Anglo-Saxon name for their little son, Yitzchak–so they named me Irving. But Christopher!

Then there is that Miss Persia contest. Esther was entered into a competition to become queen by marrying a Gentile king. Imagine that the president of the United States gets divorced and there is a nationwide beauty contest whose prize is marriage to the president. What kind of Jewish women would enter? Not likely Hasidic girls or graduates of Stern College [the women’s college of Yeshiva University].

In 2003 they made a film titled “The Book of Esther” that appears to be part of the Christian Zionist lexicon, at least based on the trailer. Unsurprisingly, it hardly garnered an audience even among Ted Cruz voters.

Of somewhat more interest is the 1960 epic titled “Esther and the King” that is a joint American-Italian production that starred Joan Collins as Esther. It was directed by Raoul Walsh, best known for action melodramas like “White Heat” that starred James Cagney as a gangster (you were expecting a bedroom farce?)

I might have a go at that film courtesy of Youtube:

The only other thing worth mentioning is that these Biblical sagas about heroes and heroines like the Maccabees and Esther were harmless when the Jews were living powerlessly in the shtetls of eastern Europe but when they took over Palestinian territory and set up a Zionist state, got their hands on F-16s and billions of dollars in American aid, such stories began to serve the racist and brutal policies that deepen each year. This report from +972 magazine says it all:

Two individual Arab-Palestinian men were assaulted by mobs of Jewish teens in Jerusalem last Thursday night. Both incidents involved victims who were set upon and beaten so severely that they had to be hospitalized. And in both cases the Israeli Hebrew media outlets that reported the story specified that at least some of the assailants were drunk and in costume. Thursday was Purim in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the festival is celebrated by dressing in costume and drinking to excess.

One of the incidents, reported in a short item by Walla! News, is described as a “suspected nationalist incident.” The Walla! report notes that some of the teens were drunk, that there were about 15 or 16 of them out celebrating the holiday raucously, in the middle of downtown, very late at night. Several people asked the loud celebrants to be quiet, including one young man in his 20s who happened to be an Arab. The teens assaulted him because he spoke Hebrew with an identifiable accent. “I don’t remember much,” he told the reporter. “It hurt a lot.”


March 23, 2016

Gilbert Achar: What happened to the Arab Spring?

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

March 22, 2016

We Like It Like That

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Although I confess to not having been a fan of boogaloo, a hybrid of Latin and soul music that was popular in the late 60s, I absolutely adored “We Like It Like That”, a new documentary that is available now on ITunes and VOD.

Director Matthew Ramirez Warren, who has written for the NY Times and NBC, began work on the film in 2010. The six years he devoted to making “We Like It Like That” were well-spent since it is a tour de force of musicology and social history, topped off by captivating interviews with musicians who played in this style. A year after the project started, Warren gave an interview to Rubber City Review where he explained how he got turned on to the music:

Unfortunately, I missed the boogaloo craze by quite a few years, I am 29 years old. Though I was exposed to Latin music growing up, I didn’t really discover boogaloo till about 10 years ago when I started DJing and collecting records. I would find these boogaloo records in used record stores and flea markets and they just blew my mind because they were so New York. I wanted to know more about them.

Boogaloo is essentially a hybrid of Afro-Cuban and soul music that frequently used English instead of Spanish lyrics. The title of the film is an adaptation of one of the monster hits “I Like It Like That”, which was written for the Pete Rodriguez band in 1967. Rodriguez, along with Joe Bataan, Johnny Colon, and other practitioners of the style now mostly in their seventies, is interviewed about how he began performing in the style. In each interview, the musicians go into considerable detail about how the harmony and rhythm departed from Latin music tradition, as well as singing or playing instruments to illustrate their points. It is the Latin music equivalent to listening to a Leonard Bernstein lecture on Mozart.

In the mid-60s Puerto Rican youth had lost interest in the music their parents danced to. Instead of playing Tito Puente, Machito or Tito Rodriguez records, they were into Motown or rock and roll. This reminded me of the time when I was good friends of a young programmer who had come to the USA from Cuba with his father, who had been a sergeant in Batista’s army. When we used to have lunch together when we were consultants at Nynex in the 1980s, we agreed to disagree on politics. Years later when he switched his major from computer science to anthropology at CCNY, he changed his mind considerably about Cuba under the impact of professors who, as he put it, were saying the same things as me.

We also disagreed about music but not so intensely. He was a fan of Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and INXS, as were most of his friends in Washington Heights who were all Latinos like him. At the time I was passionate about Afro-Cuban music and had amassed a considerable collection of records on the Egrem label, a Cuban company that had somehow managed to find a distributor in Queens. When he came over to hang out, I began to play Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros for him. He became hooked and started buying Egrem records himself. One day he told me that when his father heard a Benny Moré being played on his stereo, he came in with a big smile on his face. That, he said, was the band that he and his wife used to dance to at outdoor concerts.

Afro-Cuban music has had an ability to influence other styles over the decades as well as to be influenced as well. Much of modern African popular music has been influenced by Afro-Cuban music, the result of sailors on cargo ships playing their records in cities like Brazzaville and Dakar when they were on shore leave. Meanwhile, jazz and other styles have influenced salsa. If you’ve ever heard Eddie Palmieri, you’ll be struck by his obvious debt to McCoy Tyner.

Boogaloo was above all the style that echoed the culture of East Harlem, a neighborhood just ten blocks north of me. As Johnny Colon and other boogaloo veterans stroll along its streets, they convey the spirit of the times when Puerto Rican youth embraced a type of music that their parents might have hated. As one musician puts it, that is the key to any music’s success among teens. If your parents hated it, you loved it whether it was Elvis Presley or Joe Cuba.

Boogaloo became so pervasive that more traditional musicians were compelled by the marketplace to make boogaloo records, including Eddie Palmieri, arguably the greatest Latin musician who ever lived, and Larry Harlow—a Jew who grew up adoring Afro-Cuban music, so much so that he lived in Cuba for two years studying under the masters. He, like Palmieri, did not care for the music, but despite that made records that some consider boogaloo masterpieces.

Toward the end of the film, we see Johnny Colon and Joe Bataan performing before adoring crowds in Central Park. Evidently, boogaloo is making a comeback largely as a result of young DJ’s playing classic records in trendy nightclubs. I doubt that I will be buying any of the new CD’s made by young musicians carrying on in this tradition but I totally recommend “We Like It Like That”, a film that celebrates the genre and gives it is proper due.

March 21, 2016

How did the universe begin? How will it end?

Filed under: cosmology,science — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

The last entry in the latest Harper’s Magazine Index, a compendium of interesting factoids featured each month, reminded me that I wanted to say a few words about cosmology:

Percentage of Americans who feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week: 46

I am one of those Americans who had such feelings, often twice a day. It has always been with me to some extent but much more so after seeing the documentary on the Hadron Collider titled “Particle Fever” that I reviewed just two years ago. The film can be seen on Amazon streaming, as a DVD from Netflix or for $2.99 on Youtube:

It is entirely possible that my review didn’t exactly represent the purpose of the Hadron Collider but this was about the best I could come up with:

A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.

Multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics? That’s pretty difficult to imagine but for someone like myself just about all these theories about the origins of the universe, its certain termination, and fundamental laws of astrophysics such as gravity, etc. are virtually impossible to imagine, let alone understand.

Does any of this have anything to do with Marxism? Says Louis Proyect to Louis Proyect: “I’m glad you asked that question.”

Frederick Engels took a stab at the question of gravity in “Dialectics of Nature” and seemed about as in over his head as me in a fragmentary chapter on “Mechanics and Astronomy”:

Newtonian gravitation. The best that can be said of it is that it does not explain but pictures the present state of planetary motion. The motion is given. Ditto the force of attraction of the sun. With these data, how is the motion to be explained? By the parallelogram of forces, by a tangential force which now becomes a necessary postulate that we must accept. That is to say, assuming the eternal character of the existing state, we need a first impulse, God. But neither is the existing planetary state eternal nor is the motion originally compound, but simple rotation, and the parallelogram of forces applied here is wrong, because it did not merely make evident the unknown magnitude, the x, that had still to be found, that is to say in so far as Newton claimed not merely to put the question but to solve it.

To the displeasure of the scientists involved with Higgs boson research, it has been popularized as the “God Particle” in a 1993 book titled “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” by Leon Lederman, a physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1998 with two other men researching neutrinos. Like everything else falling within the rubric of astrophysics, trying to get a handle on neutrinos is nearly impossible for the layman especially when they are described simultaneously as having the dimensions of thousands of galaxies and being massless. What the fuck?

Just by coincidence (or maybe there’s more than just a coincidence), a lot of the breakthroughs on understanding the origins of the universe begin to take place just around the time of the Russian Revolution and its stormy aftermath and largely through the pioneering efforts of Albert Einstein who wrote an essay for the first issue of Monthly Review in 1949 titled “Why Socialism”. In case you’ve never read it, it is good reminder of what the word “socialism” once meant as opposed to the vaporous formulations of Bernie Sanders:

The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

Maybe the people who set up the Marxism Internet Archives understood that Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory was worth including even though few people would be able to understand much of it. This much I am fairly sure about, his work was about understanding time, space, gravity—the building blocks of the universe so to speak—but not so much about how it began.

That is much more the bailiwick of men and women who developed the “big bang” explanation for the origins of the universe. Among the earliest proponents was a Catholic priest named George Lemaître who concluded that the universe was expanding, a theory that was soon supported by Edwin Hubble. It was of some interest that a priest was a pioneer of the “big bang” theory, especially since it was compatible with Catholic doctrine. For Pope Pius XII it validated Catholicism even though Lemaître resented making such a connection and eventually persuaded the Pope to drop the matter.

As the most famous physicist since Einstein, Stephen Hawking—like him—is known by everybody but understood by few. He is notable for synthesizing Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, the field that Nils Bohr developed in the 1920s. Einstein highly respected Bohr but could not embrace a theory that he viewed as incomplete. It probably would not be a stretch to say that Hawking was able to synthesize Einstein and Bohr.

Quantum theory, as I understand it, is mostly focused on subatomic particles but at least one physicist applied to astrophysics. Born in 1930, Hugh Everett split his time between weapons research for the Pentagon and explaining how It All Began. He developed something called the Universal Wavefunction that supported the idea that quantum mechanics could make multiple universes possible, a notion that Nils Bohr found reprehensible when Everett presented it to him in a 1959 visit to Copenhagen. (I should mention that Hawking is another supporter of this idea.)

Discouraged by the reaction that Bohr and others had to his work, Everett abandoned physics and focused on arms research, even hoping to cash in on the Vietnam War. In 1973 he made another career transition into software development and launched a company called DBS where he developed a passion for programming—of all things. The man died of a heart attack in 1982, the result of a life style of smoking, boozing and overeating that made him even more vulnerable to an early death than Christopher Hitchens. His belief in quantum immortality, a thought experiment about as obscure as anything in this field, did not do much good in the end, nor did it do much for his daughter who killed herself in 1996, asking in a suicide note that her ashes be put in a garbage can just like her father had requested in a will. (As an atheist, he thought that’s where one’s remains belonged.)

Everett’s son Mark discovered his dead body. As leader of the rock band Eels, Mark Everett writes songs about death, mental illness and loneliness. After his cousin died while working as a stewardess on the jet that hit the Pentagon on 9/11, he wondered if it might have struck his father’s old office there.

I recommend the BBC documentary on Mark Everett titled “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” in which he performs and interviews his father’s fellow scientists about which a Scientific American blogger wrote:

Visitors to the film’s Web site can read two previously unpublished documents that Everett’s son, EELS singer-guitarist Mark, 45, found among the 25 boxes of his father’s belongings. One of the documents is from an early draft of Everett’s doctoral dissertation, in which he uses the metaphor of an amoeba splitting to explain his many worlds theory. In the other, he responds to cosmologist Bryce DeWitt, who told Everett that his theory was a “beautiful mathematical formula, but I do not feel myself split,” according to Byrne.

Getting back to Hawking, it is worth noting that his political views hew close to Einstein’s even if not as well grounded in historical materialism. In a Reddit session, he gave this reply to a question about technological unemployment:

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

Also, like Einstein, Hawking is a critic of Israel—so much so that he honored the BDS movement by pulling out of a conference there in 2013.

As indicated above, I am fascinated by the questions of how the universe began and how it will end even though most of the articles I crosspost to Marxmail sail over my head. I am not sure how much Alan Woods understands about astrophysics but he and his followers are certainly not shy about offering their opinions.

On the In Defense of Marxism website, you can find a three part article by Adam Booth on “The Crisis in Cosmology”. In part one Booth wants to make it clear that Marxists have no truck with any theory that the Pope could embrace, even mistakenly. The “big bang” and some related theories are just too close for comfort as a kind of creation myth:

All of these theories – whether it is the standard SMBBC model [Standard Model of Big Bang Cosmology], the steady-state Universe, or the cyclic Universe – suffer from a similar problem, in that they envisage a closed, finite Universe, a bounded space that exists with nothing outside of it. But how can there be a boundary to the Universe? What is beyond this boundary? Nothing? To talk of an “edge of the Universe” is as nonsensical as to talk of the beginning of time.

Yeah, how can there be a boundary to the Universe? Unless you run into a barrier erected by Thor or something.

Booth identifies the problem as one of a scientist’s allergy to the concept of Infinity:

The Universe can only be understood as a dialectical unity of opposites: an infinity of finite matter that is itself infinitely divisible and transformable. That is to say, there is an infinite amount of matter – matter that is itself finite in size and endlessly changing. All attempts to banish this infinity from cosmology have only led to even greater riddles and confusion, to talk of “singularities” where all the laws of physics break down. But a singularity is nothing but a theoretically infinitesimally small point, which, in turn is simply an inverted infinity. Far from removing infinity from the Universe, therefore, the cosmologists have merely re-introduced it by the back door.

It is hard to argue with this—even if it is just as hard to argue with those who hold the opposite view because when it comes to cosmology, there is very little way to ultimately “prove” anything. You can only operate on the basis of evidence, for which the “big bang” seems to be accumulated aplenty as time goes by.

The other two articles in Booth’s series mostly amount to arguing against the wisdom of synthesizing quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Plus some quotes from Lenin’s polemic against Empirio-Criticism, a work that is mostly of interest to the archivists among us.

His final article claims that many of the scientists involved in cosmology are contributing as much to the social good as cosmetologists. Like Keynesians (!), they are spinning their wheels on the public’s expense:

In this view, the field of modern cosmology has become, at best, a fairly harmless form of Keynesianism – a way of employing and funding a few hundred (or thousand) scientists who would otherwise be out of work. At worst, current cosmological research is a colossal waste of scientific resources which, far from being harmless, is actually damaging the wider credibility of science by dressing up nonsense as serious and important theoretical research.

You get the same sense of ennui from Christy Rodgers who wrote a CounterPunch article titled “Is the World Living or Dead?” on March 4, 2016 that was prompted by the front-page news about scientists finding evidence of gravity waves, a phenomenon that would confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Without quoting Lenin, Rodgers is even more compelling than Booth on the crisis that has befallen physics:

Instead of illuminating ever more of the cosmos, theoretical physics now seems committed to its disappearance in a cloud of unknowing: it proposes that the universe is almost entirely made up of matter we cannot observe and do not understand, and is being torn apart by anti-gravitational energy in quantities unpredicted by any theory, whose source is also unknown. And (according to string theory) the universe is dependent for a unification of its major forces on the existence of infinitesimal extra dimensions that can never be observed or completely described because they are infinitely variable, and generate an infinity of hypothetical universes that can never have any meaningful relation to ours.

I suspect that the question of the origins of the universe will remain insoluble until a deus ex machina appears to tell us mortals How It All Began, maybe Thor riding to earth on a white stallion with a flow chart in hand.

What is more easy to wrap your head around is the idea of it all coming to an end. Scientists generally believe, whatever their particular commitment to quantum mechanics, string theory, the big bang, etc, that the universe came into existence 14 billion years ago or so and that our planet was born about 3.5 billions years ago.

In their 2003 book “The Life and Death of Planet Earth”, paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee see things winding down starting around a billion years from now as the sun begins its inexorable transformation into a “red giant”, a radiating death star that will dry up the oceans and kill everything on earth. Pretty fucking depressing, no?

As it happens, Ward and Brownlee are also the authors of the 2000 “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe”, which makes the case that we are probably the only advanced species in the entire universe, which itself will come to an end around a hundred trillion years from now as the fuel, which makes the stars radiate, runs out. Sort of a “peak hydrogen” hypothesis.

I get sad meditating on the inevitable disappearance of life on earth and the universe itself. But I am even sadder thinking about the likelihood of a “quantum suicide” taking place long before that. Gosh, I’d be happy if homo sapiens can make it to a million years from now, just one/one thousandth of the time before the oceans dry up in the approaching “red giant” scenario.

Then again, I despair of us making it to a thousand years from now, given the indifference that our ruling classes have toward civilization, human life and everything else we hold dear. With the intensity of global rivalries advancing on a daily basis and with the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons, it seems like the likelihood of making it to 2116 is guarded at best.

In 1950, Albert Einstein, who had praised socialism the year before in Monthly Review, warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons in a pithy fashion: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” As was the case 67 years ago, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. As long as we have a billion years or so in front of us, let’s make the best of it.

March 19, 2016

Is Kathryn Bigelow our Leni Riefenstahl?

Filed under: Fascism,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 2:37 pm

Leni Riefenstahl

Kathryn Bigelow

As a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) for over a decade I was not surprised to see Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” named best movie of 2012 since the group had picked “Hurt Locker” as the best for 2009. Among the 36 members there were only two who had problems with this choice–Prairie Miller, a WBAI Arts Magazine host, and me.

Perhaps feeling a bit of peer pressure, I emailed my colleagues: “I actually had no problem voting for this movie in one category or another. Katherine Bigelow is our Leni Riefenstahl, after all.” (I did not bother to explain that my vote might have been for cinematography or film score, but certainly not for screenplay, direction, or best picture.) After Prairie told me that she was surprised by my comment, I began to grapple with the question of reactionary filmmaking, all the more so after reading a passage in Glenn Greenwald’s brilliant take-down of the film:

Ultimately, I really want to know whether the critics who defend this film on the grounds of “art” really believe the principles they are espousing. I raised the Leni Reifenstahl [sic] debate in my first piece not to compare Zero Dark Thirty to Triumph of the Will – or to compare Bigelow to the German director – but because this is the debate that has long been at the heart of the controversy over her career.

Do the defenders of this film believe Riefenstahl has also gotten a bad rap on the ground that she was making art, and political objections (ie, her films glorified Nazism) thus have no place in discussions of her films? I’ve actually always been ambivalent about that debate because, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Riefenstahl’s films only depicted real events and did not rely on fabrications.

But I always perceived myself in the minority on that question due to that ambivalence. It always seemed to me there was a consensus in the west that Riefenstahl was culpable and her defense of “I was just an artist” unacceptable.

Do defenders of Zero Dark Thirty view Riefenstahl critics as overly ideological heathens who demand that art adhere to their ideology? If the KKK next year produces a superbly executed film devoted to touting the virtues of white supremacy, would it be wrong to object if it wins the Best Picture Oscar on the ground that it promotes repellent ideas?

Before addressing comparisons between Bigelow and Riefenstahl, it would be useful to consider the KKK question. I am willing to bet that Greenwald had D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in mind since that pretty much describes how it is viewed nowadays: an apologia for the night riders. In a Counterpunch article devoted to the Oliver Stone/Peter Kuznick “Untold History” series on Showtime, I mentioned that “Birth of a Nation” was shown in the White House in much the same way as the Obama-friendly films like “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark Thirty” might be shown today:

Wilson even screened D. W. Griffith’s pioneering though notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915 for cabinet members and their families. In the film, a heroic Ku Klux Klan gallops in just in time to save white southerners, especially helpless women, from the clutches of brutish, lascivious freedmen and their corrupt white allies—a perverse view of history that was then being promulgated in less extreme terms by William Dunning and his students at Columbia University. Upon viewing the film, Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with Lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

In grappling with the problem of reactionary but breakthrough filmmaking, I checked the Wikipedia entry on D.W. Griffith and to my surprise discovered that Charlie Chaplin described him as “The Teacher of Us All”. Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein, two of the greats of Soviet cinema, also revered him.  Orson Welles said “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”

But the biggest surprise of all was James Agee’s take on the man who arguably made the most racist film in American history. Agee was the Nation Magazine’s film critic in the 40s and 50s and a powerful voice for the downtrodden. His name is also honored by a group of leftwing film critics that was launched by Prairie Miller, the James Agee Film Society (I suggested Agee’s name as the title of our group.) In a review for the September 4, 1948 edition of the Nation Magazine, Agee wrote:

HE ACHIEVED what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man. We will never realize how good he really was until we have the chance to see his work as often as it deserves to be seen, to examine and enjoy it in detail as exact as his achievement. But even relying, as we mainly have to, on years-old memories, a good deal becomes clear. One crude but unquestionable indication of his greatness was his power to create permanent images. All through his work there are images which are as impossible to forget, once you have seen them, as some of the grandest and simplest passages in music or poetry…

“The Birth of a Nation” is equal with Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, Whitman’s war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as “the greatest”—whatever that means—but as the one great epic, tragic film. (Today, “The Birth of a Nation” is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well-meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst, it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does.

There are two things that struck me when I read these shocking words. The first was James Agee’s focus on the image. If film is primarily about moving pictures, it should not come as any big surprise that someone like Agee would be fixated on the visual aspects of the film.

But defending the film against NAACP protests is obviously a lot more questionable. What it suggests to me is that racism was so deeply embedded in American society that even a nominally progressive journal like The Nation would be insensitive to the film’s racism. Of course, there is a precedent for this in the magazine’s history as I pointed out to Ricky Kreitner, an intern there, who had written a very good article on Spielberg’s latest movie and the historical background. It turns out that despite its abolitionist reputation, the magazine had little use for Thaddeus Stevens. Consulting the magazine’s archives, Kreitner discovered an obituary on Stevens that described his demand for slave plantations to be confiscated and the land given to ex-slaves as a sign of a “mental defect”.

I wrote Kreitner that this was not the half of it. In an article I wrote for Swans in 2008 on The Early Days of the Nation Magazine, I pointed out that the editor E.L. Godkin wrote an editorial in 1874 that was very much in the spirit of “Birth of a Nation”:

As the 1870s began, Godkin openly broke with the Radicals, assailed carpetbaggers, and called for the restoration of white power in the South. In an 1874 editorial he advised The Nation’s readers that he found the average intelligence of blacks “so low that they are slightly above the level of animals.” He longed for the return of southern conservatives to power in 1877 eagerly, writing Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton and fellow adversary of democratic rule that “I do not see . . . . the negro is ever to be worked into a system of government for which you and I would have much respect.”

Given the self-righteousness of American liberalism, it might be expected that a film that glorified the KKK would pass muster at one of its citadels. However, the critical consensus on Leni Riefenstahl would tend more to the negative since the Nazis were an Official Enemy Number One unlike the Klan, a group that Harry Truman once considered joining (again we are grateful to Stone and Kuznick for pointing this out.)

Suffice it to say that Riefenstahl is usually celebrated in much the same way as Agee celebrated D.W. Griffith, for her mastery of the image rather than for her odious politics. But then again, there was a time and place when those politics seemed not particularly offensive. This is a review of her documentary on the 1936 Olympics from the March 30, 1940 New York Times. Apparently the paper had not yet figured out that the film that opened just 5 blocks from my apartment in the Yorkville neighborhood in Manhattan (a bastion of German-American support for the Nazis at the time) was inimical to all the values we hold dear.

At 86th St. Garden Theatre

After a run of three weeks the first part of “Olympia, Festival of the Nations,” the German celluloid record, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, has made way for the latter half at the Eighty-sixth Street Garden Theatre. While it gets off to a rather slow start, Part II speeds up when the exciting military riding competition hits the screen and continues at a lively pace through the field hockey, polo, soccer and cycling events and the Marathon race to the thrilling finale of the decathelon, where Glen Morris, the American, won the title of the greatest all-around athlete in the world. The photography is always effective and sometimes brilliant. There is an adequate account of the doings spoken in English. H. T. S.

The Wikipedia article on “Olympia, Festival of the Nations” takes note of the technical breakthroughs that wowed the N.Y. Times: “She was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes’ movement, and she is noted for the slow motion shots included in the film. Riefenstahl’s work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography.”

But it added that its pro-Hitler agenda was crystal-clear. This mattered not a whit to Avery Brundage who called the film the greatest ever made about the Olympics or to Walt Disney who gave her the red carpet treatment when she visited Hollywood on a tour. (Then again, few would ever associate Brundage or Disney with liberal causes.)

While I have no doubt that her work was marked by major innovations, I tend to agree with Robert Sklar’s assessment in an April 1994 Cineaste article titled—appropriately enough—“The Devil’s Director”:

It seems incredible the length to which some of Riefenstahl’s defenders–particularly among film scholars in the United States–have gone to endorse her self-proclaimed status as a great artist, regrettably ignorant of politics in her tireless quest for esthetic perfection. The answer perhaps lies in a laudable desire to protect creative persons from political persecution, however unsavory their work. A case might be made for Riefenstahl in spite of herself, rather than the case that has been made, which buys into her every self-aggrandizing claim.

Riefenstahl’s defenders reach a point of absurdity when they compare her with Sergei Eiseinstein. It’s somewhat disingenuous to link the two names as great film artists who were also propagandists for murderous regimes, when Riefenstahl denies that her works are propaganda at all. Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers require reassessment over the same issues of political responsibility to which Riefenstahl should be held. But that similarity does not qualify her films to be mentioned in the same sentence with The Battleship Potemkin among the masterpieces of film history.

Words like ‘best,’ ‘great,’ and ‘art’ ought to be resisted when discussing Leni Riefenstahl, just to avoid the cant and obfuscation which have become synonymous with her name. Give her the credit (and blame) that she deserves: she was a pioneer of what might be called mass cinematography, a producer and planner of film spectacles that required dozens of cameras, feats of coordination and logistics, and complex organization of footage for editing. Her films are mixtures of the remarkable–such as the diving scenes in Olympia, which involved splicing reverse action footage into the sequence to heighten the uncanny effect–and the commonplace.

Will Kathryn Bigelow ever be held in such esteem as D.W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl, leaving aside political considerations? Does “Zero Dark Thirty” deserve to be described as a breakthrough at least in narrative, technical, or visual terms? In other words, the sort of criteria that matter at places like the NYU or UCLA film schools?

I have my doubts.

While I may the only person who has made the connection, I find “Zero Dark Thirty” to be highly derivative of another terrorist-manhunt-of-the-century-movie. To paraphrase Christopher Marlowe, that was in another century and besides the terrorist is dead. I am speaking here of Carlos the Jackal who was the Osama bin Laden of his day.

One of the minor characters in “Zero Dark Thirty” is a spook named Larry whose technical expertise and detective work helps the CIA track the cell phone signals that lead to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who just happened to play Carlos the Jackal (a Venezuelan by birth) in the 2010 television series “Carlos” that was released in a theatrical version a year later, is cast as Larry. When I recognized Edgar Ramirez, a light bulb went on over my head. Of course, this is the same kind of “get the terrorist fiend” movie but from a different POV. Carlos appears in every scene in the 2010 television movie while bin Laden appears in none in Bigelow’s (assuming that his corpse does not count.)

Carlos the Jackal is a man on a mission. As directed by Olivier Assayas, who counts Guy DeBord as his major intellectual influence, “Carlos” is a film that makes absolutely no effort to probe the psychological depths of an urban guerrilla. He is motivated strictly by his ideology and a willingness to use force in the interests of pursuing his political goals. Both in life and as a character in a movie, he is a compelling figure even if he remains unknowable.

Essentially Boal and Bigelow have replaced the terrorist bogeyman with his pursuers who now occupy center-stage but remain as unknowable as Carlos in the final analysis. The first half hour of the film is devoted to CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) physically and verbally abusing his captives, while Maya, the lead character played by Jessica Chastain, looks on impassively. That, my friends, is exactly what you see in “Carlos” for most of its 330 minutes except that the abuse is meant to alienate a movie audience that has been hard-wired to loathe and fear “terrorists”. When the same kind of abuse is applied to our enemies who are tied up and gagged like Carlos’s captives, then it becomes high-class entertainment–the equivalent of an Eli Roth movie geared to the liberal carriage trade, the kind of people who take a rave review in the New Yorker magazine at face value. If there is one thing Hollywood has learned over the years, it is that torturing people sells popcorn even if it is frequently useless in garnering critical intelligence.


March 18, 2016


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

Playing tonight at 8:30 PM and tomorrow at 2:00 PM in the Walter Reade Theater as part of the annual Lincoln Center/MOMA New Directors/New Films festival, “Nakom” is like no other African film I have ever seen. With a fidelity to the reality of village life among the Kusaal-speaking residents of Nakom in northern Ghana, it reveals both the desperation of subsistence farmers as well as the pleasures they eke out of a life utterly unlike that described in a Thomas Friedman column.

The film begins with Iddrisu, a medical student in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, getting an urgent cellphone call from a relative in Nakom. As the first indication of the hardships the villagers have to endure, she tells him to call her back immediately on his own phone because she lacks the units to complete the call. The news is that his father has died in a motorcycle accident and the extended family needs him to come back to Nakom to take part in the burial ceremony and to sort out their perilous financial situation.

Once he arrives in Nakom, a tiny collection of huts sans electricity, running water and the other amenities enjoyed by help desk employees in Accra that Thomas Friedman eulogizes, he learns that they have to pay back the dead man’s brother for his bull that he sold on their behalf to cover their debts. While a decent man to his two wives (one is always referred to as “the junior wife”) and their children, he was not without his vices including a certain tendency to spend money recklessly and a weakness for pito, a home-grown liquor based on the millet that is the staple the villagers depend on for most of their nutritional needs. Despite being Muslims, they have little in common with the fanatics in northern Nigeria. Indeed, Islam seems to be a patina covering a way of life that differs little from that lived hundreds of years earlier in the Ghanian countryside.

Intent on continuing his studies while he takes a semester off to look after family affairs, Iddrisu studies by lantern at night while listening to a battery-powered radio. Water is hauled from a nearby river in plastic containers and food is cooked over wood-burning stoves. It is not hard to understand why Iddrisu is anxious to return to Kumasi, where he can live a normal life.

Unlike most feature films, “Nakom” does not rely on the customary plot involving a love affair, a quest for revenge or coming of age tale, etc. The drama is mostly about the protagonists—Iddrisu’s family—trying to stay one step ahead of an uncompromising Mother Nature and an even more uncompromising marketplace. In order to pay back the uncle, they need to have a bumper crop and that means being very careful to time the planting of seeds to coincide with the rainy season. Starting too early means that the crops will rot and starting too late means that they will not benefit fully from the rainfall. Iddrisu faces these tasks head-on and with little patience for his siblings who seem to have inherited his father’s character flaws. Given his extraordinary leadership qualities, it is easy to understand why the village chief implores him to stay. He tells him that he represents Nakom’s past as well as its future.

The entire cast is made up of non-actors, mostly the dwellers of Nakom who are great at being themselves. The film stars Jacob Ayanaba as Iddrisu, who is a bit more experienced than the other members in the cast, having acted in a couple of high school plays. It is ably directed by two women–Kelly Norris and TW Pittman—using a screenplay by Isaac Adakudugu, a filmmaker, scholar and Nakomite. Pittman brings some familiarity to the daily life of people in Nakom, having lived there two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. The two women co-directed another film titled “Sombras de Azul” that was filmed in Cuba and having the distinction of being the one of the first USA-Cuba coproductions since the embargo was declared in 1960. You can watch it for $2.99 at https://www.seedandspark.com/cinema/sombras-de-azul-shades-blue.

Undoubtedly native son Adakudugu and honorary Nakomite TW Pittman had an extraordinary gift for investing the film with the linguistic authenticity that turns the folkloric formulations into memorable dialog such as this exchange between Iddrisu and the village chief as they meet on the road riding a bicycle and motorcycle respectively:

Iddrisu: It hurts to look at motorcycles now.

Chief: I understand. (pause) Leave it with God. Sometimes he calls his children back early.

Iddrisu: He drank too much and hit a shea nut tree. God did not call but he answered.


(Full schedule information on the New Directors/New Films festival that begins today is here: http://www.newdirectors.org/. Being overbooked by other writing commitments, I was not able to see any press screening except “Nakom”. Based on this selection, my advice is to look at the schedule since this festival is a welcome alternative to Cineplex slop.)



Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.