Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 21, 2020

The Swerve; We are Many

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

In 1995, before my unpaid career as a film critic began, I saw Todd Hayne’s “Safe”. It told the story of a conventional middle-class housewife played by Marianne Moore, who decays both physically and psychologically from an unspecified illness related to the environment. Since “Safe” is set in Los Angeles, it rang true. Moore was unforgettable as a woman trying to hold it together. As the film progresses, the symptoms become more and more severe. Although I saw the film 25 years ago, the nightmarish scenes remain vivid.

Yesterday, I saw “The Swerve”, a film that also depicts the physical and mental breakdown of a middle-class woman. It has the same mixture of horror and personal drama as “Safe”, as well as a stunning performance by Azura Skye as a high school teacher whose life begins falling apart at the seams. In this instance, it is not the environment that is sickening her. It is her family that is the toxin.

Skye plays Holly, a woman in perhaps her early 40s who teaches high school English in some unidentified American city. Her husband Rob has a floor manager job at a supermarket who is anxious to find something better. Rounding out the family are two teen-age sons who seem normal enough even though their potty-mouth tendencies and their readiness to mouth off to her might be just corrosive enough to explain the pills she takes each morning presumably for her nerves.

Like most women, she has two jobs. In the morning and evening, she has to prepare meals. She is also responsible for keeping their respectable two-story house neat and clean. Although the film does not try to connect her plight to broader social questions, you can’t help but feel that her two jobs, one paid and the other unpaid, were enough to make her “go postal”. The conclusion of the film depicts her violent revolt against myriad assaults on her well-being without any commentary from a cop or a doctor surveying the wreckage. Unlike Moore’s character in “Safe”, who simply withdraws into herself at the film’s end, Holly goes ballistic. Literally.

One day as she is puttering about in her kitchen, she is startled to see a mouse running across the floor. This has an unsettling effect disproportionate to the actual threat of a relatively harmless creature. She almost sees it as threatening as a rat and even becomes convinced that a small bite from the creature will lead to rabies.

As for human vermin, she has plenty on her hands as well. Her husband has been cheating on her unabashedly. She catches him making out with one of the supermarket women and suspects that he is also sleeping with her sister, who is younger and more attractive than her—as well as being even more psychologically troubled. While Holly is passive aggressive, her sister Claudia is simply aggressive. At a dinner at their mom’s house, Claudia wisecracks about Holly’s weight issues in high school without a care about the pain she is causing. Meanwhile, Claudia has her own problems as an alcoholic who has undergone repeated rehabs and two failed marriages.

Nothing seems to bring joy to Holly, not even a fling she has with one of her students who works in the same supermarket as her husband. After the boy is caught drawing sketches during her class, she seizes the sketchbook and sends him to the principal. At home, she becomes mesmerized by the skillfully drawn erotic drawings, including one of her. As problems deepen at home, sex with the teen becomes a lifebelt but hardly enough to keep her afloat.

The film was the first feature ever directed by Dean Kapsalis and certainly merits my nomination for debut director if NYFCO can ever get it together during this pandemic to have our awards meeting. “The Swerve” is every bit an achievement as Todd Haynes’s “Safe” and might even get my nomination for best picture of the year as well. As for Azura Skye, she gets my nomination for best actress hands down. I am usually not into award ceremonies but I look forward to casting my vote for an outstanding indie film. Hollywood might be dead in the water but a film like “The Swerve” convinces me that VOD more than makes up for it.

In the press notes, Kapsalis names his influences. I can only say that if he continues to make films such as this, he will get the same kind of recognition as they did:

I drew on mythology and tragedies in literature to give narrative shape and tension to Holly’s psychological desolation and longing. Through her, what I felt emerge was a view of a society that is just as alienated from itself as it is from the fragile reality through which it sleepwalks. We go on about our daily lives, our routines, often unaware (or willfully ignorant?) that the people around us can break at any moment.

Similar to the female protagonists of the classic tragedies, Holly is a dutiful wife and mother, underappreciated and overlooked for her efforts. But as she goes on, and as we settle into her world, the cracks in her already damaged psyche give way.

Many artists inspired me along the way. Filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman. Photographers William Eggleston and Gregory Crewdson. Playwrights Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. Poets Dante and Shakespeare. But in a way, it was the ancient Greeks that proved to be the most inspirational.

Starting tomorrow, the film can be rented from iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube and Amazon. It is not to be missed.

Starting tonight at 8pm EST, there will be a virtual cinema premiere of “We are Many”, a documentary about the massive antiwar protest that took place on February 15, 2003. Directed by Amir Amirani, it allows leaders of the peace movement such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Leslie Cagan in the USA to describe what amounted to the largest single-day protest in history ever to take place.

For people such as myself, there’s a sense of déjà vu. At the time, I was keenly aware of the opposition to George W. Bush’s pending invasion of Iraq as well as the lies that were used to justify it. In addition to the activists, Amirani gets members of the elite to look back in anger at a war that might have cost the lives of a million Iraqis. We hear from U.N. Arms Inspector Hans Blix as well as Patrick Tyler, who covered the war for the N.Y. Times. Unlike Judith Miller, Tyler probably opposed the war at the time even though he was forced to echo the paper’s ambivalent attitude toward the build-up to the war. Surely, the publisher must have known that Judith Miller was lying like a rug.

The film will be especially interesting to people who were too young at the time or even not having been born. The film joins Robert Draper’s recently published “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq” as an autopsy on an imperialist onslaught that has had a lasting effect on American politics. You might even say that some of the votes for Donald Trump in 2016 reflected his demagogic disavowal of the war just as Hillary Clinton’s vote for the war cost her about the same number.

The film grapples with the problem of how Bush was able to continue the war despite worldwide opposition. Why did the movement collapse like a cheap suitcase after the initial days of “shock and awe”?

None of the interviewees have an answer for that except to say that we should have done more. There is an implicit case made that demonstrations alone could not have stopped the war but another explanation could have sufficed. We used to hear the same frustrations during the Vietnam antiwar movement. Why should we keep going on peace parades when Nixon ignores them?

To start with, there was no alternative to mass action. In the USA, the antiwar movement was led by United for Peace and Justice that was all too ready to switch gears in 2004 to unseat George W. Bush just as their counterparts are eager today to unseat Donald Trump. It would have taken nonstop opposition to the war to have an effect but the coalition was far too connected to the Democratic Party to sustain a non-electoral strategy.

It is also important to acknowledge the difference between the Sunni opposition to the Shia puppet government installed in Baghdad and the NLF. While many Sunnis simply wanted to drive the USA out of Iraq, a significant minority were committed to a holy war against infidels. The car bombings that killed Shias inside or nearby a mosque were enough to make many Americans consider Iraq as a place where solidarity could only go so far. By contrast, the Vietnamese were in constant contact with American peace activists in the 60s and 70s and helped stiffen our backbone.

Director Amirani tries to take the sting out of our failure to preempt Bush’s war by pointing to Obama and the British Parliament’s opposition to a Bush-style invasion of Syria. As should be obvious from the last 10 years of “anti-imperialist” opposition to a repeat of the Iraq war, there was very little interest in opposing Assad’s war on his own people and the lethal assistance he got from Putin, whose hands were still bloody from hiswar on Chechnya. You had the spectacle of the Stop the War Coalition organizing a conference with Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix as an invited speaker. Mother Agnes was an outspoken defender of Assad’s savage war on his own people and was only disinvited after Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones said they would not speak at the meeting if it meant sharing a platform with Mother Agnes.

Notwithstanding these qualms, I recommend the film since it does at least point to the kind of power in the streets we need to take on the Republicans and the Tories who are waging war on their own people right now.

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