Monthly Archives: August 2018

The Young Karl Marx (2017)

engels

In 1850, a 32-year-old German philosopher named Karl Marx, an exile in London with his wife Jenny and their three daughters, spent a miserable January sick in bed with the flu. When he finally recovered in February, he tried to get back to the British Museum to do research for his freelance journalism, the family’s only source of income, but to his dismay he realized that he had pawned his coat the previous Fall. Not only was the weather still dangerous to his health, but since the British Museum’s Reading Room only admitted properly dressed gentlemen, the long walk through the cold London streets would have been a waste of time anyway.

Not since Jesus has a man who lived such a precarious and impoverished life had such a tremendous effect on history as Karl Marx. Only a few decades later, the Social Democrats were the largest political party in the German Reichstag. The short lived Paris Commune, which had actually been more anarchist than socialist, was generally believed to have been inspired by Marx’s writings. In 1917 and 1948, Marxism would become the official ideology of the two largest countries in the world. To this day the American ruling class spends trillions of dollars on weapons and propaganda to make sure the ideas of that perpetually broke and virtually unemployable little German exile in London never again get a fair hearing by the international working class.

I don’t know if The Young Karl Marx, a semi-fictionalized biographical drama by former Haitian Minister of Culture Raoul Peck is a great film, or even a very good one, but I do think it is an important film, or at least one worth spending two hours of your time to watch. The movie, which follows the lives of the young Marx and Engels from 1843 right up to the eve of the Revolution of 1848, and Marx’s thirtieth birthday, begins somewhere in the absolutist state of Prussia, where the class relations at the time more closely resembled eastern than western Europe. We see a group of German peasants gathering wood in the forest, taking only what’s already fallen into the ground, careful not to pull any fresh branches off the trees. As a voiceover describes the difference between scavenging and theft, and points out that the law makes no distinction between the two, we hear the sound of hoof beats, a mounted posse armed with iron bars and clubs. The miserable, bedraggled peasants scatter, but it’s too late. Most of them, including the children, are clubbed over the head, left to die in the woods of traumatic brain injury.

Later in the film, in a very brief scene you might miss if you blink or get up to go to the bathroom, Peck suggests that the massacre in the Prussian forest might have not have actually happened, that it might have been have been all in the mind of Marx who, in between bouts of dire poverty and the struggle to come up with a coherent definition of the concept of “property,” was having a nightmare. At first it seems like a curious dramatic choice, since the forest massacre is by far and away the strongest scene in The Young Karl Marx, but it makes a lot more sense when we realize that the film is basically a prelude, a brief romantic interlude about the beginning of the very deep and lasting friendship between Marx and Frederich Engels, a light string quartet before the storm and stress of a Beethoven symphony.

The political struggle in The Young Karl Marx is not a class struggle. Indeed, it’s about the birth of the very idea of class struggle. As various historical figures, Marx and Engels, the anarchist thinkers Bakunin and Proudhon and the early, primitive socialist William Weitling, compete for the attention of small, but highly militant groups of workers and artisans, we begin see the young Marx and Engels take control of the European left from the tired, middle aged Proudhon, the cordial yet slightly buffoonish Bakunin, and the passionate, yet vague and self-dramatizing Weitling. The climax of the movie comes in 1847 at a meeting where the anarchist League of the Just is dissolved and reformed into the “Marxist” Communist League, the group that would eventually become The First International.

The meeting, where Engels defends the concept of class struggle against his anarchist critics, who asset that socialism should be based on the idea that “all men are brothers” and not that “all men are enemies” feels surprisingly modern to me. If you’ve ever gone to an Occupy inspired “general assembly” or spent any time on leftist social media you realize how well Raoul Peck has captured some of the aggression and belligerence lying just beneath the surface of so many liberals and anarchists. Marx and Engels are precise, probing, thoughtful, earnest. Their anarchist and liberal opponents are loud, narcissistic, vague, all about themselves. In one astonishing scene where Marx manages to convince a group of workers and artisans that “everything changes,” that the existing relations of production are not “the way things always are” but a temporary, historical state imposed on society by the ruling class I was on the edge of my seat. I felt as if I had been transported back in time to a meeting where I not only got to hear Karl Marx himself, but Karl Marx in the process of working out the idea that would later make him famous. In other, where Engels calmly stands his ground against a tall anarchist gentleman ranting on about the ideal of universal love, we realize that the young man would probably rather punch Engels in the face than embrace him as a a brother.

Indeed, as slight a work as The Young Karl Marx is, Raoul Peck does succeed in making it clear why the American ruling class today arms itself against the ideas of Marx and Engels, not Bakunin, Proudhon or Weitling. We understand why every trendy hipster in Williamsburg with a trust fund likes to call himself an “anarchist” and why Democratic Party, neoliberal propagandists are so anxious to condemn the very idea of class struggle as “racist.” In 2018 Marxism is no mere specter haunting Europe. It is is dangerous, and alive.

route 22 by Bruce Longstreet

route-22

route 22

1.

through the two inch-speaker

of a japanese radio stashed under the pillow

you lulled me to sleep

and babbled all night

making

me think

it was always night time

on Route 22,

dark and cheap

on Route 22,

only after midnight did the commercials

come on

WABC.

 

WABC is omni-

present.

If you turn on your radio

and WABC is not there

then God

is dead.

 

On WABC God talks about

Route 22

so Route 22 is holy.

 

WABC is holy

50,000 watts of Cousin Brucie

(Can’t you hear that groovy beat,

now, baby?)

50,000 watts of Bobaloo

(Bobaloo, Bobaloo-i-a

The Big Bob Lewis Show!)

50,000 watts of Charlie Greer

(Swing! Charlie! Swing!)

and top forty early sixties rock and roll.

They hear God’s crackling voice

in Orlando, Florida!

San Juan, Puerto Rico!

On clear nights, God hits 38 states

and delivers this message to the faithful:

 

“Denison Clothiers, Route 22, Union, N.J.

Open 10AM ’til 5 the next morning,

one half-mile from The Flagship.”

 

That’s the nightly scripture reading to America.

They scratch their heads in Durham, N.C.

In the middle of the night God invites

you to come to Route 22

and buy a cheap suit.

 

“Money talks, Nobody walks,

It’s coffee break time at Denisen’s.”

2.

Ishamel peers

through the bars of the brig

of The Flagship,

New Jersey’s

most curious white elephant

at permanent dry dock in the center island

of Route 22.

Once nightclub, furniture shop,

1965 teenage discotheque,

nightclub again,

at drydock.

He sees too fast drivers

too drunk

whizz by The Flagship

he sees benzedrine truck drivers

hauling progress and comfort east

to New York

and west to King of Prussia, Pa.

He sees all night gamblers

needing breakfast and coffee,

And grim, seedy hitchhikers

needing a lift to the next life.

He sees on Route 22 a blinking storm of neon tack,

Las Vegas without the class,

hook shop come-ons for Tech Hi-Fi, Lido Diner,

R&S Auto Parts, Channel Lumber, Denisen’s,

McDonald’s.

Ishmael watches the tote board change,

Over 25 billion served.

3.

Denisen’s is gone and

WABC is nothing but a claque of

no-name Bible thumpers

in 4/4 time.

Charlie swings no more.

The new prophets are bored and

speak of new shrines, new Baals.

It is

still dark and cheap on Route 22,

as cheap as poet tears and Japanese radios.

And has no one sprung Ishmael?

He rattles the bars of the brig with his tin cup

and calls for the jailer.

He lies down on his cot and puts his radio

under his pillow and

dreams

of sharkskin suits and banlon shirts

and coffee break time

at Denisen’s.

(Route 22 is a poem I found in a long out of print literary anthology buried underneath a pile of moldy books in my basement.  All I know about the author, Bruce George Longstreet, is that he died 6 years ago.  He and I went to the same high school in Roselle, NJ. He used to be a DJ at the famous independent radio station WFMU. I would guess I’m the only person who’s read this poem in 30 years. Yet it’s as good a poem as you’ll find anywhere. Lots of places in America have a Route 22 but there’s only one Route 22 and Route 22 is really only Route 22 in Union, Springfield, and Mountainside, three dull suburbs 15 miles west of New York City. It’s a big part of my childhood, and Longstreet’s poem nails it. The only thing missing is just how dangerous it is.)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018)

rogers

If I asked any ten random people to describe what a revolutionary looks like, some people would probably say Lenin. Others would say Marx, Fidel Castro, Mao, Robespierre or George Washington. One or two might even say Jesus. I’m confident nobody would say “Fred McFeely Rogers,” the long running host of the eponymous PBS children’s how Mr. Rogers neighborhood, but in some ways that’s exactly what he was. Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor brings out the radical side of a man who dedicated his life to militant love and compassion towards children.

It’s no accident that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian Minister, or that Mr. Rogers Neighborhood first aired in 1968, the most traumatizing and yet transformative year of the 1960s. Any of the young men or women who “got clean for Gene,” put on a suit and tie to campaign for the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire would have gotten the joke. From the earnest young “haute urban bourgeoisie” in Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan to cranky old Bernie Sanders, perhaps the most admired politician of the millennial generation, there’s always been a style of personal and artistic expression that so consciously eschews any subversive pose that it become radical. In the words of Huey Lewis, “it’s hip to be square.”

Fred Rogers, who was 40 years old in 1968, got his start in television in the 1950s on a local Pittsburgh show called The Children’s Corner, where the often-low quality and easily damaged film stock had forced him and cohost Josie Carey to improvise live shows with what would eventually become his trademark puppets. Rogers, who had attended Dartmouth College, but finished up his undergraduate education studying music at Rollins College in Georgia, had considered either music or the pulpit as a career, but was drawn into the world of public television after noticing the slapstick vulgarity and spiritual emptiness of the popular children’s shows of the day and deciding that he could do better.

The result was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, a low budget show with a pacing so slow it might have seemed ridiculous to adults, but which targeted its intended audience perfectly. Children, who have far more powerful, and vulnerable, imaginations than adults, don’t need quick cuts, special effects, or convoluted plots. All they really need is a safe space to be themselves. Fred Rogers, who was bullied as a child when he briefly ballooned in weight shortly before adolescence, realized how easy is was to destroy the magic of childhood, to obscure what Wordsworth once described as “a time when meadow, grove, and stream, the earth, and every common sight seem apparelled in celestial light.”  Through the decades, beginning in 1968 when he had cast member “Lady Abelin” gently break the news about the assassination of Robert Kennedy through the 1970s, where he and the African American cast member  François Clemmons bathed their feet together in a small wading pool as a conscious rebuke to the segregationist backlash of the 1970s, Rogers taught parents how to protect their children’s souls from the dehumanizing effects of the daily news.

When it came to politics, Fred McFeely Rogers got just about everything right. I was almost as surprised to learn that he was a registered Republican as I was that he was over six feet tall. His one big failing was his refusal to support Clemmons in his decision to live his life as a gay man. Although Clemmons, who is a major character in the documentary, clearly forgives Rogers and remembers him fondly, it’s hard not to be appalled at Rogers’ advice that he should get married to a woman in order to cover up an inconvenient fact that might lose the show its sponsors. Rogers could accept Clemons as a black man. He could not accept him as a gay man.

It’s also difficult not to conclude that Fred McFeely Rogers failed. We now live in a world, not only of vulgar and bloated children’s entertainment — Rogers, who despised superhero movies would have hated the current media landscape — but one of radical evil. Our President Donald Trump, surely the negation of a man like Mr. Rogers, puts immigrant children in cages. The massacre of over 20 grade school children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, was met not only with indifference, but with outright denial by fascist media personalities like Alex Jones, who actively mounted a campaign of harassment against the families of the survivors.

Nevertheless, I came out of Would You Be My Neighbor emotionally engaged in a way that I no longer thought was possible. While I never watched the show as a child, I was brought back in touch with my inner child, at least enough to get angry at the way it was destroyed before I had the intellectual ability or emotional awareness to try to protect it. I realized that Fred McFeely Rogers’ soft-spoken call to arms was as powerful in its own way as The Communist Manifesto or the Declaration of Independence, that he consciously evoked the revolutionary power of the early Christians. Indeed, Rogers, who kept his weight at exactly 143 pounds for his entire life — 1 for “I.” 4 for “Love.” And 3 for “You.” — had found a way to preach about St. Paul’s great Letter to the Corinthians through TV, and in a way so subtle that few of us ever noticed. “Faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Leave No Trace (2018)

trace

D.H. Lawrence’s observation that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” that “it has never yet melted,” has always been obvious to everybody but Americans. Like all predators, we see ourselves, not as hunters, but as the hunted. In reality, we’ve always been both. For an Iraqi, a Vietnamese, or a Korean, a U.S. Marine or an American soldier means little except death and destruction. That same apex predator, returning home, however, often finds himself living on the streets, haunted by what he has done for his country, unable to assimilate back into the society whose “freedom” he was supposedly guarding.

Deborah Granik’s Leave No Trace opens with Will, a man who appears to be about 40, living in Forest Park just outside of Portland Oregon with his teenage daughter “Tom.” We seem them chopping wood, starting a fire using a pair of flints, going into town to buy food, setting up, then breaking down their campsite, and, above all, taking precautions to camouflage themselves, to “leave no trace,” lest they be discovered, and separated. At first glance, it seems like an idyllic existence. They have everything they need. They obviously love each other. They have successfully broken free from the American rat race. When Tom carelessly reveals their presence, and they are chased through the woods by Park Rangers with dogs, we’re horrified. We think of escaped slaves and slave catchers, or native Americans running away from the inevitable encroachment of European civilization, and genocide.

The strength of Granik’s script, and her direction, is how she slowly, methodically, and with a careful attention to detail, reveals just how mistaken we are. Even in the very beginning we have our suspicions. There’s no hint of sexual abuse or incest. Will and Tom are a loving father and daughter who care deeply about each other, who have such an easy, intuitive rapport that they complete each other’s sentences and finish each other’s chores, and yet we still wonder why a teenage girl would want to live such an isolated existence, not able to go to school, have friends, own a cat or dog , or plan for the future. The police, of course, are police, and yet “the authorities” are anything but oppressors. The social workers and family services people who take Will and Tom under their control genuinely want to help them reintegrate themselves back into society. Father and daughter are not separated. On the contrary, they’re given a place to stay in rural Oregon and Will is given a job.

It’s here we see their perspectives begin to diverge. Tom likes their new home. She meets a boy her age, and they bond over a common love of animals. A performance art group at a local church instructs her in how to use props. Social services gives her a bike, and she begins to learn how to ride. Will, however, despises his job. He begins to grow possessive of his daughter. He feels dependent and alienated, suspecting that he and Tom are being softened up by social services in order to subject them to a greater degree of control later on. At this point, we don’t quite know what to think. Granik skillfully validates both their points of view. After Tom’s new friend takes her to a 4H meeting, where some other teenage girls are learning how to handle small farm animals, we realize that she’s a natural. She doesn’t have to be taught how to pick up a large rabbit. She already knows. She makes friends easily with kids her own age. Older people want to offer her advice and guidance. She wants to stay and we want to see her stay. When Will forces her to leave, for the first time, we’re angry at him, and yet we also see the world through his eyes. Whether or not its intentional on Granik’s part, the scenes of Will at work harvesting Christmas trees recall The Devil Probably, Robert Bresson’s great film about environmental destruction. We feel his alienation when he’s forced to fill out paperwork, and take useless psychological examinations. We know something’s eating this guy. He knows it. His daughter certainly knows it, and it’s obvious that no multiple choice test on a computer is going to help him figure it out.

As the film proceeds we begin to realize what we’ve suspected all along. Will is not only an Iraq War vet suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he’s probably suicidal, haunted by something that he did, or perhaps didn’t do, but, above all, hunted, on the run, unable to stop, even for a second, lest his demons catch up and destroy him. We now find ourselves on the outside looking out. To be more specific, we find ourselves looking at him through his daughter’s eyes. Will has, half intentionally – for she’s his only connection to the world of the living – but half unintentionally trapped Tom in his own private hell, pulled her along on his flight from his invisible predators. We realize along with Tom, that if she’s going to survive, she might just have to let him die. It’s a choice nobody, let alone a teenage girl, should have to make. Tom wants to hold on as long as possible, to be his one and only connection to humanity, for as long as she’s able to bear it. In the end, being human, she can’t, so she lets go. The final scene is not only as heartbreaking as anything I’ve seen recently in film, it’s so subtle and low key, you’ll miss it if you even blink.