Mauer dreamstory

Agata Pyzik

The following is an early draft from Agata Pyzik’s excellent book-length debut, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West. I’m about halfway through writing a review of it, which I’ll probably pitch to Radical Philosophy or Art Margins. Everyone reading this should pick up a copy immediately. Pyzik’s interpretation of Possession and other films, reproduced below, is one of my favorite sections.

(Cross-posted from Faces on Posters as well as
nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour)

Picture-321 Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 11.13.13 PM.


I didnt want that to happen, but it did.

“A woman who fucks an octopus” — that was the way Andrzej Żuławski pitched his 1980 film Possession to the producer, fresh after the success of his French film L’Important C’est D’aimer, about a fallen actress, played by a sad-eyed Romy Schneider, who is made to act in pornographic movies, surrounded by other failed artists, including an unusually melancholic, tender performance from Klaus Kinski. He was also right after the fiasco of his three-hour long monumental metaphysical SF On a Silver Globe (1978) — an adaptation of a futurological fin-de-siècle novel by his great-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski — pulled before completion by the hostile communist authorities and shelved until 1987, when only Żuławski had a chance to “finish” the film. Around that time, he was abandoned by his wife Malgorzata Braunek, actress in his Third Part of the Night and The Devil, due to his famously domineering and possessive personality as a partner and a director. Left in shock and depression, he started plotting a misogynist fairy tale about a monster…

The sleep of reason produces demons, and one of them materialized when Anna, living in West Berlin with her functionary nice husband and child in a neat, three-storey block estate, realized she despised her husband. She confesses that to him. The rest is what happens after that confession.

Possession was made in the golden era of the genre of exploitation, and it must be due to the communal genius that things conceived as forgettable schlock to this day shine with a magnificent mixture of the visceral and the metaphysical, with cinematography, colors, costumes and set design taken from a masterpiece. Argento and the lesser gialli creators, Jean Rollin with his erotic horror, the expansion of an intellectual SF, started and inspired Tarkovsky, all paved the way for Possession, a still unrivaled study of a marital break-up, thrown in the middle of political turmoil in divided cold war Berlin. Still, Possession had a special “career” in the UK, if by career we understand horrible reception, extremely negative reviews and eventually putting it to the “video nasties” list of banned films. “Film nobody likes,” it was deemed too arty for the flea pits and too trashy for the art house.*

Possession21 0004

Today perhaps we can’t imagine what it was like to live in a city surrounded by barbed wire and under a constant look of armed guards. When we first see Anna, played by a disturbingly pale, un-Holy Mary-like Isabelle Adjani and Mark (Sam Neill), we instantly see something is terribly wrong: their windows are under constant scrutiny, and surrounded by wire — the symbol of political oppression just as of the marital prison, of conventional life. Continue reading

Graham Greene’s infamous review of Wee Willie Winkie (1937), starring Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple passed away a little over a week ago. Now that some time has gone by, though, I thought I would take this opportunity to repost a hilarious 1937 review written by Graham Greene of her movie Wee Willie Winkie. Greene, one of the great British authors of the twentieth century — and there were many — wrote with such searing cynicism and shocking innuendo that Temple’s guardians ended up suing him. He was practically forced to leave the country.

This reposting should not be seen as some sort of final dig at Temple shortly after she died. Indeed, it’s more of commentary on the whole Hollywood industry of the child star, which has claimed so many over the years. And in fact, Shirley Temple is one of the very few who did successfully transition into adult life without completely losing it (an all-too-familiar story for child actors who the studios chew up and spit back out).

Many thanks to Angela Nagle for bringing this to my attention, in any case. She writes:

Graham Greene on Shirley Temple’s pedo-y fans and promoters, for which he got in a lot of trouble and had to emigrate. Although I dislike how Greene’s cynical view here has become standard today, his bloody minded writing style is perfection. You can imagine how scandalous this must have been in 1937.


Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl

Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl

Wee Willie Winkie

Graham Greene
Night and Day
Oct. 28, 1937

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their backs: before them acres of anonymity. What is Jackie Coogan now but a matrimonial squabble? Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece — real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a [Marlene] Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep. Continue reading

Why “cultural politics” is worse than no politics at all

Non-Site, № 9
Feb. 25, 2013

In honor of Black History Month, I’m posting an excellent article by Adolph Reed, Jr. published almost a year ago on the shortcomings of “cultural politics” in the sphere of popular media. As Reed’s title suggests, such pseudo-politics is worse than no politics at all. His rather overlong (15,000+ word) essay could have benefited from closer editing, perhaps, but the contents are so outstanding that it more than makes up for the lengthiness. It takes the form of three separate reviews, all centered on period pieces from around the time of the American Civil War, each of which pitilessly picks apart the ideological undertones and false sense of agency that result from the glib, superficially edifying narratives typical of cultural politics. Such narratives somehow supposedly “resist” or “subvert” dominant or hegemonic narratives, according to an extremely shallow, decontextualized reading of Walter Benjamin’s imperative to “read history against the grain.”

Just a few highlights I’d like to point out. First:

Defenses of Django Unchained pivot on claims about the social significance of the narrative of a black hero. One node of this argument emphasizes the need to validate a history of autonomous black agency and “resistance” as a politico-existential desideratum. It accommodates a view that stresses the importance of recognition of rebellious or militant individuals and revolts in black American history.

Next up:

In addition to knee-jerk anti-statism, the objection that the slaves freed themselves, as it shows up in favorable comparison of Django Unchained to Lincoln, stems from a racial pietism that issued from the unholy union of cultural studies and black studies in the university. More than twenty years of “resistance” studies that find again and again, at this point ritualistically, that oppressed people have and express agency have contributed to undermining the idea of politics as a discrete sphere of activity directed toward the outward-looking project of affecting the social order, most effectively through creating, challenging or redefining institutions that anchor collective action with the objective of developing and wielding power. Instead, the notion has been largely evacuated of specific content at all. “Politics” can refer to whatever one wants it to; all that’s required is an act of will in making a claim.

Last but not least:

What [shows like Firefly] do perform regularly is liberal multiculturalism, which no doubt reinforces a sense that the show’s gestural anti-statism is at least consonant with an egalitarian politics. And that is a quality that makes multiculturalist egalitarianism, or identitarianism, and its various strategic programs — anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heteronormativity, etc. — neoliberalism’s loyal opposition. Their focus is on making neoliberalism more just and, often enough, more truly efficient.


Django Unchained, or The Help

On reflection, it’s possible to see that Django Unchained and The Help are basically different versions of the same movie. Both dissolve political economy and social relations into individual quests and interpersonal transactions and thus effectively sanitize, respectively, slavery and Jim Crow by dehistoricizing them. The problem is not so much that each film invents cartoonish fictions; it’s that the point of the cartoons is to take the place of the actual relations of exploitation that anchored the regime it depicts. In The Help the buffoonishly bigoted housewife, Hilly, obsessively pushes a pet bill that would require employers of black domestic servants to provide separate, Jim Crow toilets for them; in Django Unchained the sensibility of 1970s blaxploitation imagines “comfort girls” and “Mandingo fighters” as representative slave job descriptions. It’s as if Jim Crow had nothing to do with cheap labor and slavery had nothing to do with making slave owners rich. And the point here is not just that they get the past wrong — it’s that the particular way they get it wrong enables them to get the present just as wrong and so their politics are as misbegotten as their history.

Thus, for example, it’s only the dehistoricization that makes each film’s entirely neoliberal (they could have been scripted by Oprah) happy ending possible. The Help ends with Skeeter and the black lead, the maid Aibileen, embarking joyfully on the new, excitingly uncharted paths their book — an account of the master-servant relationship told from the perspective of the servants — has opened for them. But dehistoricization makes it possible not to notice the great distance between those paths and their likely trajectories. For Skeeter the book from which the film takes its name opens a career in the fast track of the journalism and publishing industry. Aibileen’s new path was forced upon her because the book got her fired from her intrinsically precarious job, more at-whim than at-will, in one of the few areas of employment available to working-class black women in the segregationist South — the precise likelihood that had made her and other maids initially reluctant to warm to Skeeter’s project. Yet Aibileen smiles and strides ever more confidently as she walks home because she has found and articulated her voice. Continue reading

Against what radicals?

A critical response to Aaron Bady’s
Lincoln review in Jacobin

Abraham Lincoln will take no step backward. His word has gone out over the country and the world, giving joy and gladness to the friends of freedom and progress wherever those words are read, and he will stand by them, and carry them out to the letter.

— Frederick Douglass, “Emancipation Proclaimed” (October 1862)

President Lincoln,

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

— Karl Marx, “Letter to Abraham Lincoln” (1865)

Marx did not, of course, consider Abraham Lincoln a communist; this did not, however, prevent Marx from entertaining the deepest sympathy for the struggle that Lincoln headed. The First International sent the Civil War president a message of greeting, and Lincoln in his answer greatly appreciated this moral support.

— Leon Trotskii, “Mexico and Imperialism” (1938)

Aaron Bady, a student at UC Berkeley, recently contributed a review of the Spielberg-Kushner blockbuster Lincoln to Jacobin‘s online blog. One of the sad consequences of hanging around people who work extensively on the history of the antebellum US, as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and the Marxist historiography thereof (the various accounts given it by Marx, Lenin, and the young Genovese, to name a few), is that I can’t help but roll my eyes at the pseudo-radicalism evinced by reviews like this.

They either distort facts about the history or rely on lazy New Left tropes about how it’s all just a plot to aggrandize whitey and reassert the gratitude of the oppressed to their former oppressors, who awoke one morning and beneficently decided to liberate them. It ultimately boils down to this dreary, cloying, and by now insufferable Alltagsgeschichte point about the need to write history “from below” as opposed to history “from above” — a false dichotomy if ever there was one. Even then, the article requires extremely tendentious readings of more serious historians like Eric Foner or Robin Blackburn to sustain it.

Communist Party USA meeting in Chicago, 1939: Even the Stalinists had better historical consciousness

Communist Party USA meeting in Chicago, 1939: Even the Stalinists had better historical consciousness

Despite the not insignificant role of newly-freed blacks serving in the Union military, as well as by slaves taking it upon themselves to cast off the yoke of their masters, general emancipation certainly would not have come about were it not for the bloody, protracted, armed struggle of Northern armies against the forces of the South. The collapse of the plantation system of slavery in the South was hardly inevitable; it cannot be chalked up to the struggle of the enthralled on the basis of any sort of “inherent” freedom or dignity that they had hitherto been denied. Bady does not deny wholesale the historical importance of such acts as the Emancipation Proclamation, but he does seem to suggest that their importance was purely rhetorical or symbolic (i.e., not political). When a Frenchman of Engels’ acquaintance sought to dismiss Lincoln’s address on these grounds, Marx’s reply was brief but devastating:

The fury with which the Southerners are greeting Lincoln’s acts is proof of the importance of these measures. Lincoln’s acts all have the appearance of inflexible, clause-ridden conditions communicated by a lawyer to his opposite number. This does not, however, impair their historical import and does, in actual fact, amuse me when, on the other hand, I consider the drapery in which your Frenchman enwraps the merest trifle.

New Leftism dies hard.

Critics like Bady would like to see a more “representative” sample set, which in the end amounts to nothing more than superficial pandering to ideas about political correctness that may be even more shallow, all accomplished through nauseatingly ostentatious displays of “diversity.” It’s the most disgusting, condescending tokenism dressed up as somehow vaguely radical. In reality, of course, it’s just the old, preening liberal commonplace about the way minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood.

If nothing else, this review provides still more proof that a movie (or work of art, or piece of music, or whatever) can be bad/boring and yet the reviews criticizing it can outdo it in their utter banality.

Alexander Hesler (Springfield, Illinois): Abraham Lincoln; Albumen print, 6.5 x 8.5 inches (1860)

But there’s a deeper political subtext at work in Brady’s review. It comes through in lines like these:

[G]etting the radicals in line is important in the political arena because it allows moderates like Lincoln or Obama to operate through consensus.

As Chris Cutrone has pointed out, Obama’s not a compromiser. Obama doesn’t even have principles to compromise. Nor is he a “moderate,” whatever that might mean today. To contrast:

1. Obama’s a right-wing politician who has to this point failed to implement his right-wing political agenda.
2. Lincoln was a moderate Abolitionist who succeeded in abolishing slavery. 

Yes, Reconstruction failed, and blacks in America were by no means in the clear. But Lincoln built his career in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision, and was a firm abolitionist throughout. He was often a reluctant actor, and his hand was forced by History itself, but Marx and the First International in general (both socialists and anarchists) were absolutely right to celebrate him.

In terms of “getting the radicals in line,” who does Obama have to “get in line” who’s a radical? Nancy Pelosi? You think he gives a damn about the DSA or the other lite-lefty groups that groveled in support of him around the election? Lincoln had Thaddeus Stevens running the House of Representatives to deal with. Stevens’ radicalism and outright bellicosity would have scared even the most leftish Obamaites of today into reaction. The same goes with Frederick Douglass, who while not a member of government was a public intellectual figure whose standing far exceeds that of any US leftist of recent memory. And that’s to say nothing of Robert Gould Shaw, who led the black regiment portrayed in the film Glory in the charge on Battery Wagner (in which he perished), who was a fanatical supporter of Lincoln. There’s nothing even remotely equivalent for Obama.

Ultimately, viewing Obama as a “compromiser” who has to “get radicals in line” strikes me as the opinion of someone who actually thinks that Obama and the Dems are salvageable. The person who wrote this is simply vying for a place within the Democratic Party — i.e., as one of the so-called “radicals.” If Spielberg and Kushner (neither of whom I exactly like, for the record) wanted to make a misguided comparison of Obama to Lincoln, then the author of this review tacitly accepted this comparison — and tried to elevate himself to the rank of a “radical” opposition member within the President’s party. In other words: someone whose position carries real political weight, whose opinions Obama might actually have to take into consideration before starting his next war.

Film Review: Danton (1983)

IMAGE: Georges Danton, French Revolutionary

Summary: A vivid portrayal of several of history’s greatest revolutionaries.

Rating: ★★

The 1983 film Danton actually came out of a project originating in the Polish Solidarity Movement.  It had been intended as a collaboration between a largely Polish cast and a French production company, Gaumont, which, because of the Soviet-led coup in 1981, was forced to move its entire base of operations back to Paris.  Despite such difficulties, the film’s “execution” is masterful.  The cinematography is flawless; even better is the soundtrack, which included bits used for Kubrick’s “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Wojciech Pszoniak’s portrayal of the tormented Robespierre, a man unyielding in his conviction that the Republic must be upheld, but whose ideals are hopelessly compromised by the Committee for Public Safety’s increasingly despotic regime of terror, is outstanding.  The figure of Danton, whose role is no less demanding, is presented as simultaneously the victorious hero of August 10, 1790 and the defeated martyr of 1794.  His character brims with masculinity, and yet retains an air of tragic fragility.  The cruel drama of Camille Desmoulins, the last member of the Convention to whom Robespierre had any sort of sentimental attachment, along with Desmoulins’ wife and young child, is depicted tastefully, without maudlin overtones.  Saint-Just, a minor character in the affair, is shown in all of his boyish revolutionary bloodlust.

If any objections were to be raised against the film, they would perhaps center on the outlandishly over-the-top representation of the Committee for Public Safety.  They are shown as wild-eyed, deranged sociopaths, sweating profusely beneath the deathly pallor of their lead-based foundation.  The monstrosity of the Committee is accentuated absurdly by one of the members shown in a crude, half-rusted, and primitive wheelchair contraption, with sudden and violent motions spinning along the way.

Opening of a Monument to Danton in 1919, RFSFR

Leonard Quart, in his official essay on the film for the Criterion Collection, explains the historical origins of the drama: “The film was based on the play The Danton Affair, by Stanisława Przybyszewska, first performed in 1931. Przybyszewska was a Communist whose sympathies lay with the radical Robespierre. Wajda revived the play in 1975, but he turned it on its head, making a hero out of the more moderate Danton.”  Quart continues:

 Still, even more generally, so much of what is depicted can be seen as prophetic of how later totalitarian governments ruled, including Robespierre’s use of the secret police and informers to intimidate a restive public and arrest dissenters; the extraction of confessions of nefarious plots from Danton’s followers; and a show trial where normal procedures are suspended and Danton is stopped from defending himself or calling witnesses. There is also a striking sequence where Robespierre, wrapped in the robes of Caesar while posing for a heroic portrait by the painter David, tells him to delete one figure, a man he has condemned, from a painting of the Revolution’s early leaders [the unfinished Tennis Court Oath] — like Stalin erasing Trotsky from the history of the Russian Revolution.

Yet, as Trotsky himself attested, Stalin was more a Bonaparte than he was a Robespierre.  Stalin did not even have half the revolutionary credentials of Robespierre, let alone a direct hero and leader like Danton or Trotsky.

I had seen the movie once before, but recently rewatched it at the excellent film screening accompanying Platypus’ Radical Bourgeois Summer Reading Group.

Danton’s famous speech to the Revolutionary Tribunal, in which he declares that “the Revolution is like hungry Saturn, devouring its children”

You can download a Blu-Ray edition of Danton for free using the data at the following sites.  I highly recommend a downloading program like JDownloader to automatically extract them.  Just copy the URLs en masse and they will be placed on your download list: