Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2017

One of Us; Jane

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

After I described “Baby Driver” as a supremely stupid movie on Facebook, someone wrote that “I knew its was something of a love project for edgar wright, so i just turned my brain off rather than wait for any quirky humour to arise.” What a coincidence. After seeing the two documentaries reviewed below, I said to myself that they were superior to “Wonder Woman” and “Baby Driver” because they made me think. For many people, especially those who prefer Hollywood blockbusters top-heavy with CGI such as “Wonder Woman” or car chases such as “Baby Driver”, the goal is to stop thinking. They are escapist fare while my deepest need is to be engaged with social realities. This can mean watching a narrative film like “Menashe” that made me think about the contradictions of Orthodox Judaism but there are far too few narrative films worth watching, especially in 2017 that has been a plague year for Hollywood, as Daniel Defoe would have put it.

Turning to the first documentary, “One of Us” is an examination of three young people who left ultra-orthodox Hasidic sects and that is closely related to “Menashe”. Although Menashe was sorely tested by the demand the sect elders put upon him as a single father to award custody of his young son to his brother-in-law, he was not likely to leave the Hasidic world. Ironically, the Hasid (Menashe Lustig) who played Menashe was an Internet personality with a considerable following on Youtube where his Yiddish-language comic riffs on Hasidic life persuaded the film’s director that he would be ideal for the part.

As is made clear by Ari, the 18-year old who we see being shorn of his peyot (sidelocks) in a barber shop, it was an encounter with the Internet that convinced him to leave his sect. He refers to Wikipedia and Google rapturously. It was a miracle that all the world’s knowledge was accessible to him at his fingertips.

We see a clean-shaven Ari in Gap-style clothing sitting in a park in the middle of Hasidic territory in Brooklyn gazing at his laptop when he is approached by a bearded Hasid in the standard black frocks. He begins by asking Ari if children can access the Internet from within the park, to which he replies “of course”. This leads quickly to a discussion about the threats to Hasidic life posed by all the bad things on the net and why Ari has decided to throw in his lot with the outside world. Why didn’t he want to be “one of us” as the Hasid puts it, from which the film derives its title?

The film includes footage of a remarkable rally that took place at Shea Stadium in Queens in May 2012, where a Hasidic leader referred to young children getting iPads or iPhones in anguished tones as if they decided to drink milk with meat. The NY Times reported on how difficult it would be for the community to swear off the Internet:

For an event billed as taking aim at the Internet, signs of the digital age seemed to pop up everywhere.

On a No. 7 train headed toward the stadium, several men wearing the clothing of the ultra-Orthodox whipped out smartphones as soon as the subway emerged from the East River tunnel, poking at e-mail in-boxes and checking voice mail messages.

Several opponents of the rally gathered outside the stadium, including a crowd that stood by police barricades holding signs that read, “The Internet Is Not the Problem.”

Like Ari, Luzer was seduced into leaving the Hasidim but by another snake in Eden, namely Blockbuster video where he used to rent DVD’s before Netflix obsoleted the chain. He used to rent 3 or 4 DVD’s and sit in a shopping mall parking lot to watch them in his car. When a cop thought he looked suspicious, he asked him what he was doing. When Luzer told him he was watching a movie, the cop asked why he didn’t do it at home. Because I can’t was the answer.

Now 32, Luzer is trying to make it as an actor. He divides time between LA, where he lives in an RV, and NYC. We see him visiting Monsey, NY where he is now persona non grata and not even permitted to see the two children of his previous marriage. Ironically, the town is named after the Munsee Indians who were ethnically cleansed from NY in the same way that Palestinians have been driven out of Israel.

The third subject is a woman in her mid-30s named Etty who despite being in early 30s has seven children. She has separated from her husband who was introduced to her through an arranged marriage, just as was Menashe’s recently deceased wife. In the case of the fictional Menashe and the real-life Etty, there was no love in the marriage but even worse for Etty, it led to a decade or so worth of beatings and humiliation. For Etty, there is also custody battle but one that she is likely to lose just like Menashe. A civil court in Brooklyn is likely to side with the husband as is usually the case with Hasidic divorces since the community exerts influence through bloc voting.

Like Ari and Luzer, Etty is appalled at the willful ignorance of the Hasidim as well the sexism that facilitated the oppressive household conditions she lived under. She shows us a book her daughter uses in a religious school that embodies Hasidic backwardness, including the blacking out of young girl’s faces who are depicted in the book’s graphics. It reminded me of the intervention my grandmother took but in the opposite direction. She altered a photo of my great-grandmother to block out the religious head covering she was wearing. My grandmother was religious but she had no use for shtetl backwardness.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 1.16.35 PM

“One of Us” is reminiscent of “Trembling Before God”, a 2001 documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews that adopted secularism because the homophobia in the community became unbearable. If you don’t mind Portuguese subtitles, the film can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts7bhOau0Wc

As they say, 90 percent of the success of a documentary involves the selection of attractive and interesting subjects. On this basis, “One of Us” succeeds admirably and will certainly gain my vote for best documentary in 2017. It can be seen at the IFC Center in NYC starting tomorrow as well as on Netflix.

Also opening tomorrow at the Landmark theaters on both West 57th St. and East Houston St is “Jane”, a biopic documentary about Jane Goodall, the woman who studied chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania starting in 1960 when she was 26 years old. Recently National Geographic that funded her studies came across an archive of film footage from Gombe that they turned over to Brett Morgen who would be responsible for molding them into a documentary. “Jane” consists of this footage with commentary by Jane Goodall who is now 83 years old.

As someone who was enthralled by Goodall’s “In The Shadow Of Man” when it came out in 1974, I was looking forward immensely to this film. I was a bit disappointed because the focus was much more on her life story rather than her research. For example, there is only about a minute or so showing a chimpanzee fashioning a twig into a tool to extract termites from their nest. When I read about this in her book, it made me rethink what I had read in Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

Labour begins with the making of tools. And what are the most ancient tools that we find – the most ancient judging by the heirlooms of prehistoric man that have been discovered, and by the mode of life of the earliest historical peoples and of the rawest of contemporary savages? They are hunting and fishing implements, the former at the same time serving as weapons. But hunting and fishing presuppose the transition from an exclusively vegetable diet to the concomitant use of meat, and this is another important step in the process of transition from ape to man.

Despite her lack of a college education and specialized training, Louis Leaky decided to send his secretary Jane Goodall to Tanzania because he thought that most animal behavior scientists would carry too much intellectual baggage with them and not be able to allow the chimpanzee’s behavior to speak for itself.

Leakey had come to the conclusion that studying chimpanzees would give us insights about homo sapiens. Much of what Goodall saw did have relevance, especially the use of tools and how mothers looked after their children. In addition to Goodall, Leakey also recruited Dian Fossey to study gorillas.

What I did find somewhat troubling, however, was the footage of what Goodall referred to as a virtual war between rival bands of chimpanzees that she regarded as proof that warfare is in our genes. Obviously, this is consistent with the sociobiology of Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.

As was the case with the use of fashioning twigs, the film spends only a few minutes reviewing the so-called war. One supposes that the director had to make a choice. Given the standard 90 minutes or so allocated to a feature film, you could not tell both her life story and do justice to her in-depth research.

As soon as I returned home from a press screening and did some searching on chimpanzee wars. I recommend the articles in Scientific American written by John Horgan who speculates that the aggressive behavior might have even been triggered by Jane Goodall feeding bananas to the chimps in order to bring them closer to her husband Hugo van Lawick’s camera, as is seen in “Jane”. In an article titled “Quitting the hominid fight club: The evidence is flimsy for innate chimpanzee–let alone human—warfare”, Horgan writes:

The first lethal gang attack was witnessed in 1974 at Gombe, after Goodall and her co-workers had spent 14 years closely observing chimpanzees. Goodall, who began supplying bananas to chimpanzees in 1965, once expressed concern that the feeding “was having a marked effect on the behavior of the chimps. They were beginning to move about in large groups more often than they had ever done in the old days. Worst of all, the adult males were becoming increasingly aggressive. When we first offered the chimps bananas the males seldom fought over their food; …now…there was a great deal more fighting than ever before.” (This quote appears in Sussman and Marshack’s paper.)

Chimpanzees throughout Africa are also increasingly threatened by poachers, farmers and other humans. Ian Tattersall, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, told me that chimpanzee violence is “plausibly related to population stress occasioned by human encroachment.” In other words, outbreaks of lethal violence among chimpanzees may stem primarily from environmental and even cultural factors. Wrangham himself has emphasized that chimpanzees display “significant cultural variation” in tool use, courtship and other behaviors.

My advice is to see “Jane” for some thought-provoking material to chew over as well as spectacularly beautiful cinematography produced by van Lawick, widely considered the greatest photographer of wildlife in Africa. If you, however, are interested in escapist entertainment, there is always “Wonder Woman”. You can leave your brain at home.


  1. I like your last sentence BUT I would say that you can leave your “MIND” at home but your brain has to go with you to the theater. It’s a constant struggle in my field (academic psychology) to ensure that “mind” and “brain” are not collapsed. Paraphrasing A.N. Whitehead: we should not put all “brain” into Mind nor put all Mind into brain.

    Comment by uh...clem — October 19, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

  2. Clem, so that did that go ober my brain or over my mind?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 20, 2017 @ 1:16 pm

  3. Both—it was over your head. Probably my fault for not explaining fully what I was aiming at. The mind is not in our heads really—it is a product of our experience in the social worlds we all inhabit. And it it supervenient on the brain, a physical object. Without our brains we could not develop our minds but the brain does not determine the content of our minds, individually or collectively. The neuroscientists, who now dominate academic psychology, have never proven that any measurable and particular brain state will ever tell us the content of our thoughts, even though, obviously, those brain states can register physiological arousal. This is a huge topic so that’s all I can say. Read anything recent by Hilary and/or Steven Rose, a marxist neurologist in the UK.

    Comment by uh...clem — October 21, 2017 @ 3:58 am

  4. OK I have previously read about the man inside the brain problem. But with out years of study would a anything written by Hilary and Steve Rose be understandable to a non proffesional?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 22, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

  5. Curt Kastens: There is no problem reading and understanding Steven Rose’s The 21st Century Brain, which has lots of good stuff in it. Also his Against Biological Determinism. All the talk about the brain, neuroscience, neuropsychology, etc. that dominates most discussion about mental distress, for example, is just another form of biological determinism.

    Comment by uh...clem — October 22, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

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