Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 1, 2020

Robin’s Wish

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

I am not a great Robin Williams fan and even found his most interesting performances done against type such as the psychopath in “One Hour Photo”. When I learned that a documentary about his death titled “Robin’s Wish” was premiering today on Amazon Prime and the spanking new Google Play, I requested a screener. Whatever qualms I had about his skills as a comedian or an actor gave way to the sympathy I had for a man cursed by Lewy Body Dementia, an illness that combines the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia. It is a miracle that he didn’t take his life sooner given the suffering he endured.

With generous excerpts from his scripted and improvised performances, you have to give him credit for being possibly the most versatile talent of the past half-century. We learn from the film that he entered Julliard mostly to become a serious actor. When it became difficult for him to land the kind of roles he sought, he began doing standup just to pay the rent.

Unquestionably, his brain was remarkably endowed with an ability to improvise on the spot, using words like a bebop musician uses notes. That brain also allowed him to easily slip into different characters even though it was hard not to see Robin Williams’s unique persona at their core.

By 2013, it was becoming obvious to many people, especially his wife whose interviews are the thread that connect all the shifting episodes in the film, that he was ill. One of the first signs was a trembling left hand that he tried to conceal in a pocket. When the couple first went to a neurologist, the diagnosis did not seem so bad. He had Parkinson’s, which specialists view as a disease that might take at least ten years to leave the patient incapacitated. However, in a small minority of cases, a disease called Lewy Body Dementia sets in. The film relies on Williams’s wife, co-workers and friends (including Mort Sahl, who is still alive at 93) for reflections on his decline as well as medical specialists.

When the media first reported on his suicide by hanging on August 11, 2014, there were rumors that he suffered from depression. Indeed, he did suffer from depression and substance abuse all his life—like his good friend John Belushi—but it was the Lewy Body Dementia that made him decide to take his own life.

It was only after his death that the cause of his suicide was revealed. An autopsy revealed that he had the most advanced case of Lewy Body Dementia they’d ever seen. In the press notes, his wife Susan Schneider Williams, who brought him great happiness after they were married in 2011, explains why the film was made:

During the last year of his life, Robin was confronted with anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, scary  altered realities and a roller coaster of hope and despair. With our medical team’s care we  chased a relentless parade of symptoms but with very little gain. It wasn’t until after Robin’s  passing, in autopsy, that the source of his terror was revealed: he had diffuse Lewy body disease. It was one of the worst cases medical professionals had seen.

Armed with the name of a brain disease I’d never heard of, I set out on a mission to  understand it, and that led me down my unchosen path of advocacy. With invaluable help  from leading medical experts, I saw that what Robin and I had gone through, finally made  sense — our experience matched up with the science. And what I discovered along the way  was bigger than me, and bigger than Robin. The full story was revealed during the making of  this film and it holds the truth that Robin and I had been searching for.

March 27, 2020

Life and Death in the Epicenter

Filed under: coronavirus,Counterpunch,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm


When it comes to warding off COVID-19, I’ve been ahead of the curve. Last October, after a bout with acute bronchitis that lasted most of the month, I resolved never to go through such an ordeal again. I started using hand sanitizer and avoided touching my face. Like my glaucoma, it is a geriatric illness. When I checked the New York Times archives for tips on dealing with bronchitis, I was shocked to discover how many well-known and powerful geezers came down with it: Konrad Adenauer, Boris Yeltsin, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Paul Robeson. None died from bronchitis, but around half were hospitalized, a routine treatment for powerful heads of state (except for Robeson.)

While bronchitis is not life-threatening, COVID-19 certainly is. As a septuagenarian, I am vulnerable. On top of that, the illness indicated that my immune system was compromised, just as you’d expect. Getting through this pandemic is a matter of life and death for me, especially since I live in New York City, the epicenter.

Continue reading

March 14, 2020

Polio, COVID-19, and socialism

Filed under: COVID-19,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

One of the few remaining survivors, Paul Alexander spends almost every moment of the day inside his iron lung.

In 1952, when I was very young, fear gripped my little village in the Catskills and across the USA as well. Sixty thousand children were stricken with the polio virus that year, leaving 3,000 dead and thousands more paralyzed. Some children were kept alive in an iron lung that functioned like the modern-day ventilator but that kept them confined to a virtual living coffin.

Summer was called “polio season”. In Woodridge, we had Kaplan’s Lake, a pond really, that local kids swam in. I went there mainly to wade near the beach. One summer our parents told us that it was being shut down because of the polio epidemic. We were also warned about sitting too close to each other in movie theaters, a real problem when the latest Martin and Lewis movie had kids lined up around the block to buy a ticket at the Lyceum Theater in Woodridge.

FDR was probably the most well-known polio victim in the USA but many others had the illness, including Neil Young and Francis Ford Coppola who had milder cases. Born in 1950, Patrick Cockburn came down with polio when he was six. He wrote a book about his experience titled “The Broken Boy” in 2005. In an NPR interview that year, the host told him: “You’ve been left with a limp, a severe limp. But you interviewed other survivors who were really much worse off.” Cockburn replied:

Yes, many of them. One man who became a businessman had to learn to sign his name using his teeth–with a pen stuck in his teeth and a special apparatus. Many others were–had their back affected, their lungs affected, their legs affected. But many people fought back. I mean, I met one man who was a farmer who was frightened that when he went home, because he was so badly crippled, that people wouldn’t accept him. But actually his family–and Irish families are very strong–re-adapted the farm so he could operate the farm machinery, so he could be a working farmer. And many other people fought back against extraordinary odds.

For many doctors, the goal of developing a vaccine to prevent polio became paramount. FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938 and promoted the March of Dimes for polio research. When Harry Truman became president, he committed to a war on polio using language redolent of the 30s New Deal:

The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war. It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.

Two research doctors, New York Jews, were instrumental in developing a vaccine. Neither one of them saw this as a way of getting rich. Their goal was only to save the lives of children.

Born in New York City in 1914, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine based on dead polio viruses in 1955. Backing for his project was universal, with 100 million contributors to the March of Dimes, and 7 million volunteers going around with the iconic collection bank.

Salk could have made millions by patenting the vaccine but he preferred to see it made as widely available as possible. When he went on Edward R. Murrow’s popular “Person to Person” show, the host asked him who owned the patent. Salk replied, “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” (Had it been patented, it would be worth $7 billion.)

As it happens, Salk graduated from CCNY, a hotbed of radicalism in the 1930s. It should come as no surprise that J. Edgar Hoover had his number. Five years before he came out with the vaccine, he was the subject of an FBI investigation. Writing to Dillon Anderson, a top aide to Eisenhower, Hoover recapitulated his transgressions:

  • Three unnamed associates of Salk, professors at U-M, said that during World War II Salk contributed to war relief for the Soviet Union and was “outspoken” in his praise for that country. The associates said Salk praised the country’s technical advances, while his wife, Donna, was even more outspoken in her praise for all aspects of Soviet life, Hoover wrote.
  • One of Salk’s professional associates at U-M in the 1940s said that Salk was “far left of center.” Another associate noted that a liberal organization for which Salk served as treasurer in 1946 became “leftist” under Salk’s leadership.
  • Salk and his wife registered to vote for the American Labor Party in the early 1940s, the letter says. According to an informant, the Communist Party emerged as a controlling force of the ALP within areas of New York City during that time.
  • An informant advised that Salk’s brother, Lee, was a member of the Communist Party in Ann Arbor in 1948.
  • According to an informant, Hoover said, Salk’s name appeared on the mailing list of the New York Conference for Inalienable Rights in 1941. The group was cited as a Communist front by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Born Albert Saperstein in Bialystok, Poland in 1906, Albert Sabin received a medical degree from NYU, just as Salk did. Unlike Salk, Sabin’s goal was to develop a vaccine based on weakened polio virus. Both vaccines worked, with Sabin’s having the advantage of being able to be taken orally and longer-lasting.

Defying Cold War hysteria, Sabin worked closely with Soviet bloc doctors and scientists, thus earning him the reputation of working on a “communist vaccine”. In an article titled “Vaccination and the communist state: polio in Eastern Europe”, Dora Vargha concludes that the communist states were capable of “doing good things” as Bernie Sanders has said:

Both East and West shared the perception of what the communist state was and its ideal role in polio prevention. Following the appearance and successful application of live poliovirus vaccines, Eastern European states saw themselves as particularly suited to achieve effectiveness in curbing – and eradicating – polio through their part in vaccine development and its distribution. The West, while not endorsing such political regimes ideologically, agreed. Indeed, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland became pioneers in introducing, testing and applying live poliovirus vaccines on a mass scale, while their Eastern European peers were quick to follow in mass vaccination.

From a broader geopolitical perspective, polio raised uncomfortable questions about the positive side of communist regimes (i.e. effective epidemic control) and in a short time came to symbolise ‘neutral’ science that broke the barriers between East and West. The top-down organisation of vaccine trial organisation and immunisation, which was, at the time, seen as particularly communist and Eastern European, also came to be seen as the most effective way to eradicate polio on a global scale.

Sabin continued reaching out to demonized post-capitalist societies long after this. In a 2014 article titled “Epidemics and Opportunities for U.S.-Cuba Collaboration”, Marguerite Jiménez described his internationalist outlook:

Several years after his collaborative breakthrough with the Soviet Union, Sabin set his sights on a much smaller Communist collaborator, one that was much closer to home. Sabin had traveled to Cuba multiples times prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959, however he had been unable to return since the early 1950s. Despite receiving multiple invitations from public health officials on the island during the early 1960s, the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Cuba made such a high-profile visit by a famous U.S. scientist all but impossible.

Sabin’s enthusiastic pursuit of collaborative opportunities with the Soviet Union during the 1950s foreshadowed his efforts in Cuba to overcome political obstacles and diplomatic melodrama. Accordingly, at the end of 1965 when the Department of State announced an easing of restrictions on travel to Communist nations by certain categories of professionals, Sabin quickly seized the opportunity. The Department of State reported that the relaxation had been in response to the “urging of the medical community,” and had been done for reasons of “humanity” to promote greater international cooperation in combating diseases. While medical research justified the humanitarian nature of the move, the New York Times reported, “The hope in official circles was that the medical scientists could open the door to closer cooperation in other scientific areas.” Sabin immediately sent copies of the announcement to colleagues in Cuba and within twenty-four hours he received an invitation through Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Finally, after almost two years of planning, Sabin arrived in Havana on December 4, 1967. While in Cuba, he had the opportunity to visit and meet with people in a wide range of scientific and medical institutions, as well as hospitals, polyclinics, and research facilities. While other elements of his trip became public thanks to a handful of newspaper articles on the subject published in both the United States and Cuba, what is not commonly known is that during his trip, Sabin met with Antonio Nuñez Jiménez, a prominent young leader within Fidel Castro’s regime and the president of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. Sabin described Jiménez as a “pistol packing” and “very pleasant” person.

Yesterday, I was reminded of Salk and Sabin after reading a report from the Sunnybrook Research Institute, a hospital associated the University of Toronto. Titled “Research team has isolated the COVID-19 virus”, it revealed that Dr. Robert Kozak, Dr. Samira Mubareka, Dr. Arinjay Banerjee had isolated severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the agent responsible for the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.

That information would be critical to developing a vaccine. In describing their discovery, Arinjay Banerjee sounded very much in the Salk/Sabin tradition: “Now that we have isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we can share this with other researchers and continue this teamwork. The more viruses that are made available in this way, the more we can learn, collaborate and share.”

Collaborate and share. That’s not only necessary for overcoming COVID-19 but in saving the world from capitalist destruction.

Farhad Manjoo, one of the only readable NY Times op-ed columnists, was onto something when he wrote that “everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic”. He wrote:

There may be a silver lining here: What if the virus forces Americans and their elected representatives to recognize the strength of a collectivist ethos? The coronavirus, in fact, offers something like a preview of many of the threats we might face from the worst effects of climate change. Because the virus is coldly indiscriminate and nearly inescapable, it leaves us all, rich and poor, in the same boat: The only way any of us is truly protected is if the least among us is protected.


March 3, 2020

Some notes on viruses & infection prevention

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 11:19 pm

(A guest post from fellow CounterPunch contributor Manuel Garcia Jr.)


Here are some notes on viruses, viral infections, and preventative measures to ward off infections. The text is from Rick Lancaster (actually, an M.D. researcher he knows), and the images are from my daughter’s high school biology textbooks and notes. I assembled this today for my own education, given the current epidemic of coronavirus 2019-2020 (plus influenza), and I thought to transmit it to my usual network of e-mail correspondents. I’m no science nor medical expert in virology and biology, but all this looks reasonable and helpful to me; and perhaps for you as well.

In other unrelated news, tomorrow (3 March 2020) is the California primary election: I am voting for Bernie Sanders, and I have sent him a contribution. I’ve said/written enough about the presidential election, and it’s all on my blog if you want to know my thinking on the matter. Take care, MG,Jr.

Manuel Garcia, Jr.

From Rick Lancaster: CORONAVIRUS 2020

Copied from a friends wall, this is very good advice:

I’ve copied from a doctors post: For those concerned about the coronavirus:
Subject: What I am doing for the upcoming COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic
by James Robb, MD UC San Diego

Dear Colleagues, as some of you may recall, when I was a professor of pathology at the University of California San Diego, I was one of the first molecular virologists in the world to work on coronaviruses (the 1970s). I was the first to demonstrate the number of genes the virus contained. Since then, I have kept up with the coronavirus field and its multiple clinical transfers into the human population (e.g., SARS, MERS), from different animal sources.

The current projections for its expansion in the US are only probable, due to continued insufficient worldwide data, but it is most likely to be widespread in the US by mid to late March and April.

Here is what I have done and the precautions that I take and will take. These are the same precautions I currently use during our influenza seasons, except for the mask and gloves.:

1) NO HANDSHAKING! Use a fist bump, slight bow, elbow bump, etc.

2) Use ONLY your knuckle to touch light switches. elevator buttons, etc.. Lift the gasoline dispenser with a paper towel or use a disposable glove.

3) Open doors with your closed fist or hip – do not grasp the handle with your hand, unless there is no other way to open the door. Especially important on bathroom and post office/commercial doors.

4) Use disinfectant wipes at the stores when they are available, including wiping the handle and child seat in grocery carts.

5) Wash your hands with soap for 10-20 seconds and/or use a greater than 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer whenever you return home from ANY activity that involves locations where other people have been.

6) Keep a bottle of sanitizer available at each of your home’s entrances. AND in your car for use after getting gas or touching other contaminated objects when you can’t immediately wash your hands.

7) If possible, cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue and discard. Use your elbow only if you have to. The clothing on your elbow will contain infectious virus that can be passed on for up to a week or more!

What I have stocked in preparation for the pandemic spread to the US:

1) Latex or nitrile latex disposable gloves for use when going shopping, using the gasoline pump, and all other outside activity when you come in contact with contaminated areas.

Note: This virus is spread in large droplets by coughing and sneezing. This means that the air will not infect you! BUT all the surfaces where these droplets land are infectious for about a week on average – everything that is associated with infected people will be contaminated and potentially infectious. The virus is on surfaces and you will not be infected unless your unprotected face is directly coughed or sneezed upon. This virus only has cell receptors for lung cells (it only infects your lungs) The only way for the virus to infect you is through your nose or mouth via your hands or an infected cough or sneeze onto or into your nose or mouth.

2) Stock up now with disposable surgical masks and use them to prevent you from touching your nose and/or mouth (We touch our nose/mouth 90X/day without knowing it!). This is the only way this virus can infect you – it is lung-specific. The mask will not prevent the virus in a direct sneeze from getting into your nose or mouth – it is only to keep you from touching your nose or mouth.

3) Stock up now with hand sanitizers and latex/nitrile gloves (get the appropriate sizes for your family). The hand sanitizers must be alcohol-based and greater than 60% alcohol to be effective.

4) Stock up now with zinc lozenges. These lozenges have been proven to be effective in blocking coronavirus (and most other viruses) from multiplying in your throat and nasopharynx. Use as directed several times each day when you begin to feel ANY “cold-like” symptoms beginning. It is best to lie down and let the lozenge dissolve in the back of your throat and nasopharynx. Cold-Eeze lozenges is one brand available, but there are other brands available.

I, as many others do, hope that this pandemic will be reasonably contained, BUT I personally do not think it will be. Humans have never seen this snake-associated virus before and have no internal defense against it. Tremendous worldwide efforts are being made to understand the molecular and clinical virology of this virus. Unbelievable molecular knowledge about the genomics, structure, and virulence of this virus has already been achieved. BUT, there will be NO drugs or vaccines available this year to protect us or limit the infection within us. Only symptomatic support is available.

I hope these personal thoughts will be helpful during this potentially catastrophic pandemic. You are welcome to share this email. Good luck to all of us!

October 26, 2019

Bronchitis blues

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

In late September I suffered one of the many colds that have plagued me over the years. Unlike most people who soldier on with Nyquil, I am usually barely able to get out of bed. They tend to form a predictable and woeful pattern. The first day or two begins with a sore throat that makes it difficult to swallow or speak. Then, the next phase migrates to the nasal passages with constant sneezing, sniffling, and feeling miserable that can last up to five days. The final phase, occurring in at least three of four colds, is a “wet” cough that yields yellow sputum and makes sleeping difficult. Add these phases together and you are talking about a week and a half of suffering.

In early October, the cold ran its course and life returned to normal, lasting for about five days, if memory serves me right. However, unaccountably, the final phase of the cold returned  on the sixth day. Then, for another five days, I had a recurrence of the cold’s “wet” cough that showed no signs of abating. At this point, my wife pressured me to go to one of those walk-in CityMD clinics to see what was going on. I generally don’t like going for exams and tend to stick my head in the sand like an ostrich. She, on the other hand, probably relies on them too much.

After using a stethoscope for about two minutes, the CityMD physician tells me that my lungs reveal an “abnormal” condition and that he needs to x-ray me to check for pneumonia. About twenty minutes after the x-ray, he said that I tested negative for pneumonia so the diagnosis was bronchitis instead, a viral-based illness for which antibiotics, the normal medication for bacteria-based pneumonia, were useless, if not ill-advised. As most of you know, there is a tendency to overprescribe antibiotics, which leads to bacteria developing a resistance and hence becoming more deadly.

He prescribed benzonatate, a cough suppressant that can actually be purchased OTC. But unfortunately, there is no medication that can halt the inflammation of the bronchial tubes that was producing the wet coughs. After taking benzonatate for a week, it did not even suppress the coughing. Perhaps that is just as well since some physicians believe that the best thing is to cough up the sputum that lines the bronchial tubes and make breathing easier. After the benzonatate ran out, I started taking Mucinex but gave up after it too did nothing to relieve the coughing. I also had decided that it was probably best to just keep coughing and spit out the sputum. Ironically, doctors call this wet cough “productive”. Productive not in these sense of vitamins keeping you healthy but in the sense of producing sputum.

Another odd bit of terminology. I have what they call acute bronchitis, which is distinguished from chronic bronchitis that afflicts many smokers and those living in highly air-polluted cities. So, what’s the alternative to acute bronchitis? Moderate bronchitis? It turns out that all bronchitis, except for the chronic kind, is acute. Don’t ask me why. What I can tell you is that it can last up to three weeks and I am now exactly at that point. This morning I had a couple of wet coughs but am pretty sure that by tomorrow or Monday at the latest I should be 100 percent.

When I learned that I had bronchitis, I had no idea of what this meant anatomically. The word bronchial tube summons up the image of something like the trachea, also called the windpipe. I assumed that the trachea led to the bronchial tubes, which then entered the lungs. But I had no idea that once they entered the lungs they became like the roots of a tree, growing narrower and narrower the deeper they penetrated the lungs. I could understand after seeing a graphic like this how they could produce such a large amount of sputum. If only medical science could figure out a way to reduce or better yet end the inflammation, I’d have a lot less to worry about. As with any illnesses produced by a virus, that’s easier said than done

If you factor in my head cold, I have been ailing for a full month this fall. It means that I could not go out for exercise or to see a film. I have been meaning to see “Joker” and weigh in on the controversy but just couldn’t chance getting worse. Although I feel a little weird even bothering to write about this illness in light of the real horrors many FB friends are enduring, including Neil Davidson’s battle with a stage 4 brain tumor, it does cast a pall over my generally carefree life.

When my mother was my age and in relatively good shape except for a growing crankiness that a young friend of hers attributed to old age, she came down with pneumonia twice. I never gave much thought to how she got it but assumed it was because she wasn’t “taking care of herself”. Looking back in retrospect, her life-style was not that much different than mine other than eating the wrong foods and too much of them, as well as being totally sedentary. Despite that, she lived to eighty-seven and I will be fine with matching that. It doesn’t seem out of the question since I have her genes rather than my father’s. Like me, she suffered brutal colds over the years and likely ended up with pneumonia like I ended up with bronchitis.

I told the doctor at CityMD that I didn’t understand how I could have gotten bronchitis just five days after my cold had ended. He told me that it was a weather change that could have done it. I didn’t want to tell him that this sounded like nonsense but I still can’t explain how a virus could have invaded my bronchial tubes out of the blue. I am sure it was related to the cold but I have no idea how. In discussing this with my wife, who is obviously concerned about my health, I told her that I had to take strict measures to prevent getting a cold ever again. This means being very conscious of not touching my mouth or nose with my fingers when I am out shopping or at a film screening. And when I get home, using Purell immediately.

During the first week of my illness, when I was feeling most desperate, I decided to buy CBD oil which is a derivative of the hemp plant that supposedly has medical uses. On October 16th, the NY Times ran an article on the benefits of CBD that reported on its value in reducing depression, insomnia and other neural disorders. Out of curiosity, I googled “CBD bronchitis” and found a number of articles recommending it as a home remedy. I spent $24 for a tiny bottle and urge you not to waste your money, at least if you get bronchitis. In fact, bronchitis is one of the most common ailments, especially for geezers like me, and just something you have to get used to unless you are like me and ready to take preventive measures to avoid three weeks of suffering.

As part of my search for some relief, I went to the NY Times archives and tried to find some remedies that might work. I figured that the Gray Lady might be reliable since it tends to have useful health articles, especially from Jane Brody who is a couple of years older than me and addresses geriatric issues in her weekly Tuesday column.

What I found shocked me. There were 5,107 articles about famous people who had come down with bronchitis, mostly the elderly like me. Among those listed in the first couple of dozen are: Konrad Adenauer, Boris Yeltsin, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Paul Robeson. None of them died from bronchitis but around half were hospitalized, a routine treatment for powerful heads of state (except for Robeson.)

About six months ago, I was crossing 88th Street on Third Avenue in the afternoon when I stepped into a shallow pothole and fell on my face, like a tree that had just been chopped down. Fortunately, I caught myself before hitting the pavement so the blow was not bad enough to break a bone. My glasses were broken but I was able to salvage the lenses. I’ll never forget the crowd of people standing over me asking if I was all right. I felt more embarrassed about the whole thing than anything else.

From that point on, I am always very watchful crossing the street but continue to wonder how I could have tripped. It finally dawned on me that I am not 35 years old any more. As with the bronchitis, I have to watch my step. Life is better for me than it has ever been with a marriage now in its seventeenth year to a Turkish woman who has a tenured position in the CUNY system. My fondest hope is to live as long as my mother since the next dozen years can really be great as long as I can avoid the potholes and the viruses.

July 5, 2018

A Skin So Soft

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

Although it is far afield from the sort of film I tend to review, I would be remiss in not recommending the documentary about body-building titled “A Skin So Soft” that opens at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow. Given its subject matter, you’d think that the Anthology that shares my overall political/artistic preferences would be the last place in the world to show a film having anything in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Pumping Iron”. In fact, it does have little in common and is much more of an edgy art film that is totally riveting.

This is a 2017 documentary directed by director Denis Côté that focuses on six body-builders in Quebec who we see on their daily rounds, either lifting weights or walking their dog. Unlike “Pumping Iron”, we hear almost nothing from the principals except for very mundane chatter with their wives or the people they are training, who in two instances are their wives.

The overarching theme of “Pumping Iron” is male aggression, with Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno facing off. In “A Skin So Soft”, it is mostly camaraderie with a strong sense that the men are almost like sculptors using their bodies as raw material. Their pursuit is not so much a worship of masculinity but of beauty. Despite the sheer strangeness of seeing biceps the width of automobile tires, you never get the vibe that these are steroid-gobbling creatures ready to beat a stranger to a pulp.

Indeed, the rituals of depilation, oiling, and posing have the aura of beauty contests rather than gladiator contests. At the end of the film, the six men go off to a country retreat at the director’s expense apparently to swim, sunbathe and relax. Despite the homoerotic suggestion of this scene and other scenes, it is much more like young boys at summer camp.

Director Denis Côté is an extraordinary talent and I hope to track down more of his films. Once again, you will be richly rewarded by a trip downtown to Anthology Film Archives for a screening of “A Skin So Soft”.

November 8, 2017

Requiem for a running back

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,sports — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

In choosing the title “Requiem for a Running Back” for her profoundly moving documentary about football and CTE, director Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of its subject Lew Carpenter, might have had the 1956 teleplay by Rod Serling in mind. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starred Jack Palance as the boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, who is at the end of his career and already showing signs of dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome”. In telling the story of her father, who was a halfback with the Green Bay Packers and other teams from 1953 to 1963, she conveys the same kind of dramatic intensity Serling brought to his teleplay. As is so often the case, the truth of a documentary reaches heights that no fiction can reach. The film, which opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, now has the inside track for my pick as best documentary of 2017.

Jack Palance played Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, someone for whom boxing was all he ever knew and terrified of trying something new—so much so that he signed up for a fight even though doctors warned that it might kill him. After Lew Carpenter’s football career came to an end, he started a new career as a coach under Vince Lombardi who he idolized. As he approached middle age, Carpenter began to exhibit the traits that all CTE sufferers display: loss of memory, depression, fits of anger, and intellectual deficits. But when he was coaching, they were kept under control. It was only when he could no longer coach that they escalated radically to the point of breaking up his marriage and creating a deep estrangement with his daughters, one of whom was Rebecca Carpenter destined to graduate from Harvard University and begin a career in television, film, and education. With a mission to discover who her father was through interviews with former players who knew him probably better than she did—his surrogate sons—and her obvious grasp of the art of the documentary, she has made a film for the ages.

Lew Carpenter was born in 1932 to dirt poor farmers from Hayti, Missouri but grew up in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. He understood that unless he made a career in football, he’d end up chopping cotton like his parents who lived in a shack. After starring on the University of Arkansas team, he began his career with the Detroit Lions and then moved on to the Green Bay Packers. Despite the director’s obvious aim in putting football out of business, she has made a point of communicating what makes the game so fulfilling for those who play it, including Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Lofton who was coached by Lew Carpenter. Lofton makes clear that even though both Lombardi and Carpenter could be as mean and even as degrading as a drill instructor, he and his teammates looked at them worshipfully because they helped them excel. He describes professional football as a place where ethnicity and class make little difference because the sport is only interested in what you can bring to the game. In fact, the same thing can be said about the military.

Carpenter also interviews a number of medical researchers who testify as to the indifference of the owners about the health of the men who toil for them. When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair described the protests of men like Colin Kaepernick as “inmates running the prison”, he blurted out what has been true for a very long time. In one eye-opening interview with attorney Ed Garvey, who represented the players in a number of confrontations much sharper than that going no now, we learn that they insisted on using AstroTurf even though it risked injury to the brain. At one point, an owner growing tired of Garvey’s advocacy warned him that for only a $100 he can find someone to stuff his corpse into a trunk.

In keeping with the most recent research on CTE, Carpenter reveals that some experts do not regard concussion as its cause. It happens that although Lew Carpenter endured the usual number of collisions on the field over a 10-year career, he had never suffered from repeated concussions. It is entirely possible that he was a victim of “brain slosh”, a term used by some medical researchers to describe the effect of having a brain floating normally in cerebrospinal fluid and not connected to the skull being hurled against it when a player is tackled. No helmet can prevent this. Furthermore, it is also possible that it is only exposure to “minor” hits during a career in football can be the culprit. That is why some analysts are predicting the demise of the game.

In one of the more jaw-dropping interviews in Carpenter’s film, we hear Mike Ditka state that if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football—the very same Mike Ditka who was once described by Mike Duerson as a coach who never “gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching.” Although it is understandable why Carpenter would find Ditka’s renunciation of football worth filming, it must be said that the grizzled icon of brutality on the football field has not seen fit to defend Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Dave Zirin pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Ditka is the guy who berated his own Bears players for not crossing a picket line when the NFLPA was on strike in 1987. He’s the guy today who—after a lifetime of supporting right-wing candidates—shills for another dubious product: Donald Trump.

And now, true to form, he’s coming out against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. On Friday, he said on the Shan & RJ radio show, “I think it’s a problem. Anybody who disrespects this country and the flag. If they don’t like the country they don’t like our flag, get the hell out. My choice is, I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka said. “I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now, if they don’t want to look for them then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work. If you don’t work, that’s a different problem.”

Eventually, professional football players will connect the dots between the racism of a Robert McNair and the continuing efforts of the owners to shortchange the former players who are in desperate need of support as they wrestle with the onset of early dementia and the other demons CTE submits them to.

June 2, 2017

The High Cost of Gadgetry

Filed under: computers,Counterpunch,Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm

Two new documentaries will make you look differently at your electronic gadgets, especially the cool iPhone or other products from Apple whose logo might be changed to a skull-and-crossbones after seeing “Death by Design” and “Complicit”. They examine the damage done to both the workers who produce them and the environment, especially in China, as well as raise important questions about the meaning of “progress”. If being able to use an iPhone to pay for your Starbucks coffee comes at the expense of a leukemia epidemic for Foxconn workers and making 60 percent of China’s groundwater unsuitable for drinking, then the whole question of progress has to be thought through.

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November 28, 2016

Off the Rails; Asperger’s Are Us

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

Just by coincidence, two documentaries about people with Asperger Syndrome premiered this November. Showing through December 1 at the Metrograph in New York, “Off the Rails” is a portrait of Darius McCollum, an African-American famous (or infamous to the authorities) for commandeering NY’s subway trains and buses, often under the assumed identity of an MTA employee. There is also “Asperger’s Are Us” that can be seen on ITunes and Amazon. It follows four young men with Asperger’s who perform together as a comedy group and who were initially drawn together because telling jokes was one of the ways they could break out of their isolation. In an odd way, McCollum’s obsession with trains was his way of connecting with people, especially when one of his joy rides would make the front-page news. Perhaps joy ride is not the right term since McCollum’s sole interest was in following MTA regulations to the letter, often more conscientiously than any employee.

It was nearly 35 years ago when New Yorkers learned of McCollum’s maiden voyage in the NY Times:

Published: January 31, 1981

A 15-year-old Queens boy took over the controls of a subway train Thursday night and operated it as its passengers rode unaware for six stops from 34th Street to the World Trade Center, transit authorities reported.

Both the boy and the motorman were arrested. The motorman, Carl Scholack, 46, said he had permitted the boy to take the throttle because he had become ”violently ill,” according to officials. He was suspended from duty pending an investigation.

The train set out from 179th Street in Jamaica on the IND’s E line at 11:25 P.M. with Mr. Scholack in charge, the police said. They said Mr. Scholack, who has been with the Transit Authority for 13 years, told them he had let the youth take over alone at 34th Street, having tested his ability over a two-stop stretch in Queens.

The idea, investigators said, was for the boy to guide the train, which was carrying about a dozen passengers, to the Chambers Street/World Trade Center terminal. He was then to start the return run to Jamaica with Mr. Scholack waiting at 34th Street to resume control.

Officials declined to identify the youth, but other sources named him as Darius McCollum of South Jamaica, a student at a technical school. Officials said his parents had previously asked to have him declared a juvenile in need of supervision. He reportedly picked up a knowledge of subway equipment and signals while ”hanging out” at the Jamaica yards.

If this was his only arrest, he might have been a footnote but as soon as he got out of jail, he surrendered to his obsession many times to the point where he would end up spending half his life behind bars.

Except for appearances by sympathetic lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers who have been involved professionally keeping him out of jail, McCollum is on camera explaining how became so inexplicably devoted to assuming the identity of a subway or bus operator. You’d think that if you were facing five years in Sing Sing, it would be for robbing a bank and not doing the kind of work that made Ralph Kramden miserable for free.

McCollum is a genial sort who does not seem that troubled by all the years he has spent in penitentiaries. Like a drug offender who has just been released from prison, he always returns to the habit that cost him his freedom. Is it possible that he only feels free when he is operating a subway train or bus?

Like drug addicts, there was never any reason to lock McCollum up since he was suffering from a mental illness that compelled him to return to the scenes of his crimes. In the United States today, the prisons are filled with drug addicts and the mentally ill—a symptom of a society in terminal decay. After one of his releases, McCollum landed an internship working for the MTA museum in New York and was doing an exceptional job—no surprise given his encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s transportation system. As soon as the MTA found out, they told the museum to fire him. Once he lost that connection, it was inevitable that he would begin taking over trains and buses again. So, who is mentally ill? McCollum or the men in suits who were ready to crucify him? That is the question posed by this compelling documentary.

Unlike Darius McCollum, the four men in “Asperger’s Are Us” live fairly conventional lives as the children of white middle-class New England suburbanites. They met more than a decade ago at a camp for children with Asperger’s and discovered that they all liked to make jokes.

Like McCollum, there is not much in the way they speak or behave that would give you the impression that they were on the autism spectrum except for those moments when they get stressed out. When they are rehearsing at one of their homes, the youth who lives there begins to pace nervously because his parents are there. Like most people with Asperger’s, he is not comfortable with intimacy. In another scene, we see his father touching him affectionately in the kitchen—something that it took a long time for him to accept.

The film follows the four around as they rehearse for their yearly theatrical appearance that shows the influence of Monty Python. They readily admit that they are indifferent to the audience response since their real goal is to bond with each other doing what they enjoy. As they laugh at each other’s antics, you would mistake them for any four undergrads, which in fact is what they are or will become. One of them has been accepted into a year-long program at Oxford and we learn in the closing credits that he won an award for his academic performance. He is now working on a PhD on the Nordic model for combatting sex trafficking.

Ironically, one of them has the same obsession with trains as McCollum but was able to put it to productive use. His hobby, which involved gaining a detailed knowledge of the national train network, led to him work on a master’s degree in transportation planning.

Both films will help you understand Asperger’s better even if both lack the talking head expertise of psychiatrists. A quick look on the Internet revealed that there are some well-known people with the illness (if you want to call it that) including Dan Ackroyd.

Considered a milder autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it differs from others by allowing relatively normal language and intelligence. It is estimated that 31 million people suffer from Asperger’s globally and there is no “cure” as such. Wikipedia states: “Some researchers and people on the autism spectrum have advocated a shift in attitudes toward the view that autism spectrum disorder is a difference, rather than a disease that must be treated or cured.”

As is the case with cancer, some experts believe that environmental factors have led to an increase in the number of all autism cases, including Asperger’s. Given the drift of late capitalism, you can be assured that the environmental factor will multiply exponentially as corporations seek profits over well-being. That’s the real madness when you stop and thing about it.

July 18, 2016

Open Your Eyes

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 10:19 pm

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 6.17.39 PM

This is the news release for a 40-minute documentary I just watched and found deeply moving. The film begins by stating that there are 40,000,000 blind people around the world today and that 90 percent are in poor Third World countries like Nepal, where the elderly husband and wife regain their sight from an operation funded by the Seva Foundation. I found the film of more than routine interest because I have cataracts in both eyes like the couple but can rely on Medicare to pay for the surgery when my time has come. Scheduling information is in the press release and I urge you to take advantage of your HBO subscription since it will be about the best thing you see on the premium channel this month.

For Immediate Release


Nearly 40 million people worldwide are blind, mostly from cataracts, and 90% of them live in the poorest countries. Yet most cataract blindness can be cured by simple surgery implanting an intraocular lens that once cost $500 and is now available for less than $2.

OPEN YOUR EYES follows Manisara and Durga, an aging couple from the remote Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, as they embark on a transformative odyssey to regain the sight they lost over the years by undergoing this life-changing procedure. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky (HBO’s Oscar®-nominated “The Final Inch”), this inspiring documentary debuts MONDAY, JULY 18 (7:30-8:10 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO Other HBO playdates: July 20 (9:00 a.m., 4:35 p.m. ET only, 5:00 p.m. PT only), 24 (11:05 a.m.) and 28 (noon) HBO2 playdates: July 21 (8:00 p.m.), 25 (2:10 p.m., 12:40 a.m.) and 30 (11:30 a.m.)

The documentary will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand. In remote Nepal, many hillside farmers’ eyes slowly turn milky white as they lose their eyesight from exposure to a lifetime of harsh sun. A team of resourceful Nepali eye specialists combing the area finds Manisara and Durga, who have been married 50 years, and urges them to come to a distant city for a chance to see again. But Manisara is skeptical. Only when her youngest granddaughter plops onto her lap does she decide to move forward.

Filmed over the course of three days and set against the backdrop of the breathtaking Himalayan Mountains, OPEN YOUR EYES follows their extraordinary journey to see again, as Manisara and Durga are carried and guided through narrow paths and down winding roads, all the while facing the great unknown with courage, grace and hope. Finally, the couple arrives at an eye hospital in Palpa, which offers free cataract surgeries once a month through support from the Seva Foundation. Performing the surgery is Dr. Gurung, who has traveled from Kathmandu. Reflecting on what could be, Manisara says, “What would make me truly happy? I must tell you, I will be happy to see the world again.”

Husband and wife are laid beside each other for the operations, and in mere minutes, intraocular lenses have been inserted and Manisara and Durga’s eyes have been bandaged. All in all, 54 surgeries will be completed successfully that day, with each procedure taking around six minutes. The original title song of OPEN YOUR EYES was composed by Salman Ahmad and features guest vocals by iconic musician and humanitarian Peter Gabriel. In addition to the Oscar®-nominated “The Final Inch,” director Irene Taylor Brodsky’s HBO credits include the upcoming “Beware the Slenderman,” as well as “Saving Pelican 895,” “One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp” and the Peabody Award-winning “Hear and Now.”

Producer Larry Brilliant co-founded Seva Foundation, the international NGO responsible for restoring sight to four million blind people globally. He is also chairman of the board of the Skoll Global Threats Fund and was one of the leaders of the World OPEN YOUR EYES – 3 Health Organization’s successful smallpox eradication program. OPEN YOUR EYES is directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky; executive producer, Laurene Powell Jobs; producer, Larry Brilliant; produced by Irene Taylor Brodsky and Sophie Harris; original music by Salman Ahmad.

For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

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