Monthly Archives: April 2016

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

Rosa Luxemburg was the anti-Hillary Clinton. Born in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, to a Jewish family in Zamosc, Poland, she was one of the first women in Western Europe to earn a doctoral degree. Considering her brilliance as an economist, she could have probably become wealthy. Instead she chose to fight for the working-class. In 1914, after the German Social Democrats voted to fund the First World War, a betrayal far more shocking than the Democratic Party’s decision in 2003 to support the invasion of Iraq, she became one of the leaders in the fight against European militarism. Her Junius Pamphlet, smuggled out of the prison where she was placed in “preventative detention,” is still the classic, Marxist polemic against socialist collaboration with imperialist governments. She would have hated Bernie Sanders. Released in 1918 after the fall of the German monarchy, Rosa Luxemburg helped found the Spartacist League, a group that eventually became the German Communist Party. Her freedom was to be short lived. She and her radical colleague Karl Liebknecht attempted to lead an insurrection in Berlin in solidarity with the Russian Revolution, but the uprising was suppressed by the Social Democratic government of Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske. She and Liebknecht were captured by a proto-fascist group of military veterans, bludgeoned to death with rifle butts, and thrown into the Landwehr Canal.

If Margarethe von Trotta’s 1986 biographical drama is not well-known in the United States, it probably has a lot to do with how the screenplay’s fractured chronology presumes that the viewer is not only familiar with Rosa Luxemburg, but also has a thorough grounding in the history of German and Polish social democracy. If you’ve never heard of August Bebel, Klara Zetkin, Leo Jogiches, and Louise Kautsky, if you don’t know that Luxemburg lived in Warsaw in 1905 and 1906 under the alias “Anna Matschke,” you’re going to spend a lot of time scratching your head in confusion. What’s more, von Trotta makes no concessions at all to lazy, careless viewers. I saw Rosa Luxemburg in during its original theatrical run in the United States in 1987 when I was an undergraduate. I was already thoroughly familiar with German history, and the history of the First World War, but I still missed a lot of what von Trotta was trying to say simply because my level of concentration was more attuned to Hollywood than to the language of the European art film. Rosa Luxemburg is not a movie for people with a low cinematic IQ. That being said, and if I haven’t scared you off, you should watch it anyway, especially since it’s on YouTube in full with English subtitles. Copyright issues being what they are, it might not last. As far as I know, it’s not available on a DVD that will play in the United States.

My suggestion is to view it for the first time without trying to figure out what’s going on in the background. Rosa Luxemburg is not only a beautifully shot film, it features the German actress Barbara Sukowa in what might be one the best performance of the 1980s. Outwardly, Sukowa doesn’t closely resemble the historical Rosa Luxemburg, but it doesn’t matter. She thoroughly embodies the spirit of a revolutionary the German government considered so dangerous they decided to lock her up during most of the First World War, and then finally have her murdered her before she could succeed in becoming another Lenin. One image in particular stands out. Jailed in Warsaw in 1906 by the Russian government for her participation in the Revolution of 1905, her older brother visits her in prison. Luxemburg is behind two sets of bars, the bars of a cell used for visits from family and relatives, and the bars of a large cage her jailers have placed inside the same cell. The intense gaze of Sukowa’s blue eyes do more than twenty pages of dialogue to express just how much Luxemburg hated being behind bars confined. Later, however, after she learns that August Bebel and the German Social Democrats sent the Russian government bribes in exchange for her release, she explodes in anger. She does not want to trade in a Russian prison for a sense of obligation to the party bureaucracy. Being in an iron cage is bad enough. Being in an intellectual cage is a hundred times worse.

All through the movie, I wondered if the historical Rosa Luxemburg would have enjoyed von Trotta’s dramatization of her life. It’s certainly flattering for an intellectual to see herself portrayed by a beautiful, charismatic actress, but would a communist have wanted her own personal story to overshadow the movement and the working class as a whole? Von Trotta made Rosa Luxemburg in the mid-1980s, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a decade after the failure of the new left. Large stretches of the movie are preoccupied with the question of whether she wanted to lead the German revolution or settle down in a happy marriage with one of her lovers, all of whom seem like weaklings and intellectual nonentities. Her friendship with Louise Kautsky – who died at Auschwitz in 1944 – is a centerpiece of the narrative, but it never quite gets beyond purely physical expressions of affection. Rosa Luxemburg has many long, soulful gazes, hand clasps, and warm embraces between women, but at no time do they feel like much more than a ritualistic, pantomime between members of the educated bourgeoisie during the late Victorian Age. When Luxemburg remarks to Kautsky about how “boisterous” they’re being, an American in 2016 can only think “well no. You’re not being that boisterous.” Nothing in Rosa Luxemburg quite equals the fights between Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds, an almost contemporary film made by refugees of the failed, 1960s new left which, like Rosa Luxemburg, projects the conflict between revolutionary idealism and a longing for bourgeois domesticity back into the heady days of the Russian Revolution. Sukowa is a much better actor than Beatty or Keaton, but she really doesn’t have much chemistry with anybody else in the film’s cast, which is odd considering that she’s actually had children with the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski, who plays Rosa Luxemburg’s long-time lover Leo Jogiches.

Final Note: I suspect that Rosa Luxemburg will appeal to women more than men. Many of my reservations about this excellent film probably still come from the fact that I’m an American male who was brought up on Hollywood movies and MTV music videos. Rosa Luxemburg is a very feminine treatment of the very masculine subjects of war and revolution.

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

People who write for TV shows, like Victorian novelists, get paid by the word. As long as the show gets ratings and makes money, it will go on. The Sopranos, like the loaf of bread Karl Marx famously talks about in the first volume of Das Kapital, contains almost as much sawdust as it does nutritious grain. The series, which ran for almost eight years, follows commercial, not dramatic logic. The story of Tony and Carmela Soprano, mostly played out after two or three seasons, had to be stretched out into six. At some point it makes more sense to read The Sopranos not as a novel, but as a collection of short stories, David Chase’s “New Jerseyans” to James Joyce’s Dubliners. The infamous final episode, where the screen simply goes black, and which has inspired so much debate, is simply Chase realizing he doesn’t have it in him to write anything as compelling as The Dead. So he closes out the series with a whimper instead with the “bang” that we expected.

The core idea of The Sopranos is the hostility of the elderly to the middle-aged, the dread people in their forties and fifties feel as their parents decline into senility and death. As the series opens, Tony Soprano, a portly New Jersey mob boss played by James Gandolfini, would seem to embody the American Dream. Not only does he have a mansion in North Caldwell, a devoted wife, and an Ivy League bound daughter, younger women fall into his lap like ripe apples from a tree. Unlike a stock broker, a dentist, or any other normal member of the suburban upper-middle-class, he gets to act out on his aggression with little or no consequences. If someone pisses him off, he can just have him killed. Yet Tony Soprano is not a happy man. His mother Livia and his Uncle Corrado, “Uncle Junior,” may be declining physically, but they have no intention of giving way gracefully to the next generation. In fact, they want him dead.

Nancy Marchand, who plays Livia Soprano, died in 2000 along with her character. Her performance as an emotionally withholding Italian American mother is the heart and soul of the series. Every scene between Marchand and Gandolfini rings true. James Gandolfini was a physically imposing man, well over six feet tall and just shy of three hundred pounds. Nancy Marchand was a frail old woman dying of lung cancer. The power dynamic between Livia and Tony Soprano is one sided. Tony is determined to have his mother’s approval. She’s just as determined to deny him. Watching Tony bring a box of Italian pastries to the nursing home where he has very reluctantly confined Livia and observing how she rejects the offering is a master class in good acting. Gandolfini swaggers in like a cat with a bird its mouth. Marchand’s initial expression is one of pure joy. They’re very good pastries, but Livia can’t allow Tony to see that he has pleased her in any way. Marchand turns off her smile like a light switch. Her body language becomes hard, domineering. Gandolfini, in turn, is deflated. You observe the forty-year-old man become a twelve-year-old boy. You can almost see the air leak out of his body.

The Sopranos never quite recovers from Marchand’s death, but it’s the dread of the declining, elderly parent that keeps it going for the next five years. Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior, isn’t quite on the same level as Gandolfini and Marchand, but he’s close. As Uncle Junior succumbs to Alzheimer’s Disease, we like Tony Soprano, wonder just how much of it is real, and just how much he’s faking. Modeled on the real life Vincent Louis Gigante, Corrado Soprano attempts to avoid a long jail sentence by feigning mental illness. Unlike Gigante, he is successful, but almost as if cursed by the gods for his deception, the play becomes reality. Shortly after pretending to lose his mind, he actually does lose his mind. He begins to wander through his neighborhood in his bathrobe. He forgets where he has hidden an enormous sum of money. Finally, he shoots his nephew in the gut, almost killing him.

If David Chase is a master at portraying the middle-aged and the elderly, he has little or no ability to write about people under thirty. Tony’s daughter Meadow is a kind of teenage girl who became drearily familiar in the 1990s, the wise beyond her years, straight-A student who serves as a hip foil to her square parents. Meadow’s character doesn’t develop so much as it fades from the series. The longer The Sopranos goes on, the less we see of her. Her boyfriends, in turn, are plot devices, not actual flesh and blood human beings. Noah Tannenbaum, who’s half black, half Jewish, and all privileged, Ivy League douchebag, exists mainly to demonstrate that Tony Soprano doesn’t want his daughter dating a “moulinyan.” Meadow’s next boyfriend, Jackie Aprile Jr. is a dim pretty boy. The man after that, Finn DeTrolio, a Columbia student and a “Wonder Bread Wop,” as Tony refers derisively refers to to overly assimilate Italian Americans, is the most sympathetic and complex of the three, but in the end, he remains a cipher. Finn casually “outs” Vito, a gay mobster, a betrayal that eventually leads to Vito’s torture and murder, but the show never considers the act on a moral or a dramatic level. Finn is never portrayed as a rat. He’s afraid of Vito. He thinks Vito wants to fuck him. That seems to be enough. As politically correct as Meadow can be, it doesn’t even lead to a fight. Their breakup is off screen. We never learn the reason why.

Anthony Jr. or “AJ,” Meadow’s younger brother, is as much of a 1990s cliché as his sister. Chase has no interest in getting inside his head or portraying him as an individual. AJ simply reflects what Chase can glean from popular culture about what young men born in the mid-1980s are supposed to be like. First he’s the bratty younger brother, Bart Simpson to Lisa Simpson. Then, like a grunge-era slacker, he grows his hair long, gets a job at a Blockbuster Video, and goes to parties he can’t afford. After 9/11, he becomes a wannabe patriot. When he gets dumped by his Hispanic girlfriend – we have absolutely no idea why she’s dating him in the first place so we have absolutely no idea why she dumps him –and he becomes suicidal, Chase writes what’s probably the worst and yet most representative scene in the entire series. AJ goes out to the family pool. He ties a plastic bag over his head and a cinder block to his leg. He jumps in the water. At long last, we think, this tedious bore of a character is going to die a horrible death, but no. He changes his mind. He pulls the plastic bag off his head, and tries to swim to dry ground. Then Chase himself seems to change his mind. AJ can’t get out of the pool with the cinder block around his ankle. Maybe he’ll die after all. Finally, however, just as AJ is about to draw his last breath, Tony Soprano pulls into the driveway, hears his son’s cries for help, dives into the pool, and pulls him out of the water.

In other words, AJ is so uninteresting, we really don’t care if he lives or dies, and Chase knows it. Like the infamous “fade to black” ending, AJ’s suicide, then change of heart, then rescue, expresses absolutely nothing about his character. All it means is that Chase can write literally anything he wants, and his loyal fans will still talk about it on the Internet. The show has abandoned dramatic, narrative logic altogether. We, the viewers, have been completely subordinated to the marketplace. If you want to see what it looks like when a TV writer has lost all respect for his audience, you could do worse then Anthony Soprano Junior’s little dip in the family pool.

The Sopranos might just be the most violent TV show in history. After awhile, you begin to lose track of who gets his head bashed in, who gets whacked, who gets chopped up and who doesn’t. Just about the only thing we notice is that graying, overweight, middle-aged men always seem to win fights. Above all, The Sopranos is a middle-aged, white guy’s power fantasy. Two deaths, however, do matter. Christopher Molisanti, played by Michael Imperioli – Spider from Goodfellas – is Tony Soprano’s younger protégé, Jesse Pinkman to his Walter White. Adriana La Cerva, Drea De Matteo, is his fiancée. While neither of them is particularly interesting as an individual – Chase can’t write characters in their late 20s much better than he can write teenagers – they are key to the resolution of the series as a whole. When the FBI bullies Adriana into becoming an informant, it’s the closest The Sopranos, which ran during the worst years of the second Bush administration, comes to criticizing the United States of the Patriot Act. Adriana is engaged to a mobster but other than managing a mob controlled night-club, she’s not particularly involved in the world of organized crime. She doesn’t have much much to tell the government, and her FBI handlers know it. It’s all a big sadistic power game.

Molisanti’s decision to turn over his fiancée to Tony Soprano – her murder is by far the most horrifying one in the series – is a key moral choice. He has chosen his spiritual father figure, the patriarchy, over the woman he supposedly loves, but Tony, like Livia, can’t pass things off to the next generation. An aspiring screenwriter, and perhaps very loosely fictionalized stand in for Chase himself, Molisanti had become addicted to drugs and alcohol, and had very slowly and painfully managed to recover. A seemingly trivial incident – Molisanti sleeps with a woman Soprano once had his designs on – pushes the two men apart. Once Tony marks a piece of property it’s his, so he isolates Molisanti by publicly taunting him about his painfully won sobriety. How can you be a real man, let alone a “made” man, if you can’t handle your alcohol? After Molisanti relapses, Soprano uses it as an excuse to murder him. All throughout The Sopranos, the FBI has been most successful in flipping alcoholics and addicts. After a convenient car crash – car crashes become a tediously predictable plot device in The Sopranos – even more conveniently crushes Molisanti’s rib cage but leaves Soprano almost unscathed, Soprano blocks his one time protégé’s nostrils and lets him down in his own blood. Tony, like his mother, wants to kill his son. Unlike his mother, he succeeds.

Reading the Landscape: 9

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Wychwood is a turn of the (last) century gated community in the West Fields of Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Originally built for rich New York commuters who wanted to live inside a Thomas Kinkade painting, it featured a Tudor Revival gatehouse that stood at its entrance for many years before it burned down in 2013. I doubt the gate ever locked. Instead, it was an ostentatious display of wealth, a signal to the rest of the world that “the people who live here are filthy fucking rich and would rather the common people stayed the fuck out.”

Reading the Landscape: 8

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All through the interminable Presidential election of 2015 and 2016 I have ridden my bike through Union County, New Jersey. I have seen the Democratic strongholds of Elizabeth, Linden, Union, Rahway, Hillside and Roselle. I have climbed the Watchung Mountains into Republican Summit, New Providence and Berkeley Heights. I have explored Clark, Kenilworth, Plainfield, Scotch Plains, and Roselle Park. Yet only today, and only in my backyard, have I found the Holy Grail, an actual supporter of John Kasich. Since people who live on Orange Avenue in Cranford, New Jersey don’t usually work  in the corporate media — where up until now the only supporters of John Kasich and Marco Rubio have ever been sighted — I have every reason to believe that it is authentic. There may be only one, but there is at least one.

Reading the Landscape: 7

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I know the different kinds of orchids well. I studied them once for several days in the wonderful hothouses at Frankfort-on-the-Main, where a whole section is filled with them. It was after the trial in which I was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment.

Their slender grace and their fantastic, almost unnatural forms make them seem to me over-refined and decadent. They produce on me the impression of a dainty marquise of the powder-and-patch period.

The admiration I feel for them has to encounter an internal resistance, and is attended with a certain uneasiness, for by disposition I am antagonistic to everything decadent and perverse. A common dandelion gives me far more pleasure. It has so much sunshine in its colour; like me, it expands gratefully in the sun, and furls its petals shyly at the least shade.

Rosa Luxemburg

Reading the Landscape: 6

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My mother, who was raised in the Presbyterian church, once told me that “Catholics are just like Protestants, except they worship idols.” It’s probably more accurate to say that in suburban America everybody is basically an idol worshiping Presbyterian, the idol being money. At what point do you become rich enough where you can leave the religious statues off the front lawn, and park two BMWs in the driveway?

Reading the Landcape: 5

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Someone in my neighborhood chalked up the sidewalk in solidarity with the Verizon strike. I’m not sure why. There isn’t a lot of foot traffic. You have to stop and look carefully before you realize what it’s all about. Yet it obviously took a lot of work. Maybe chalking in solidarity with the labor movement is like writing fiction. You say what you think needs to be said, put it out in the world, and hope someone wanders by and reads it. In any event, The New Yorker would probably tell us both to check our white privilege.

Reading the Landscape: 4

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“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said. As for me, I’m never quite sure where the upper-middle-class ends, and the rich begin. According to the Internet, this Gilded Age mansion in New Jersey is valued at a little over a million dollars, about the same price as a studio apartment in Palo Alto, California. If I had to guess who lives here, I’d say it was a well-off dentist, not a member of the one percent. It must cost a fortune to heat.