Archive for July, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Occupy Movement

July 8, 2012

At CounterPunch, Alexander Cockburn has an article about the Occupy movement. Although Cockburn makes some valid criticisms, I think he is too dismissive of the movement as a whole. He writes, “People have written complicated pieces trying to prove it’s not over, but if ever I saw a dead movement, it is surely Occupy.” In fact there are still Occupy groups all over the country, and many of them still hold regular meetings. It is true, however, that the movement doesn’t have as strong a presence as it did last winter. It’s possible, I think, that the movement might be in better shape if some things had been done differently.

In hindsight, I think it was a mistake not to put forward clear demands. The argument that I often heard for not doing so was that demands would lead to disagreements, which would lead to divisions. Yet disagreements and divisions happened anyway. Political clarity was sacrificed in order to attain an impossible ideal of group harmony. The greatest division, it seems to me, was, and is, between those who favor Black Bloc tactics and those who advocate Gandhian non-violent resistance. These two approaches are, in fact, mutually exclusive. This can not be covered up by platitudes about “diversity of tactics”. Some tactics are incompatible with others.

I suspect that this exaggerated fear of division is what drives the insistence upon a consensus approach to decision-making. The argument was that consensus, although time-consuming, will bring everyone into harmonious agreement. Yet some people became dissatisfied and left anyway, as would have happened under simple majority rule. So, what has been gained by having consensus? Nothing that I can see.

Then there is the pretense of “leaderlessness”. The truth is that some people become unofficial leaders, either because they are very good at making arguments, or because they possess specialized skills that are useful to the movement, or because they are simply both willing and able to devote an enormous amount of time and energy to the cause. Wouldn’t it make sense to acknowledge this and make these people directly accountable to the entire group?

Cockburn makes one point that strikes me as particularly salient. He writes:

    Where was the knowledge of, let along [sic] the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors [sic] of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took [sic] McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance.
Yet when one [sic] raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.

Typographical errors aside, what Cockburn says here is true of much of the U.S. left. How many American leftists have even heard of A.J. Muste? Or the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement? Or C.L.R. James? (Although you can always find an anarchist who is willing to talk your arm off about Kronstadt.) On left-wing British websites you can find informed discussions about such topics as the Battle of Cable Street, the 1926 General Strike, or Trotsky’s conception of the united front. We have nothing quite like this here in this country. There is little effort among the U.S. left to learn from the successes and failures of the past. It’s as though we must continually re-invent the wheel. What’s more, this historical amnesia makes us vulnerable to all kinds of dishonesty, as when, in Capitalism: A Love Story, Michale Moore reminds us of the 1936 Flint sit-down strike – only to make the false claim that F.D.R. sent in National Guard troops to defend the strikers from the police. In fact, they were sent there to intimidate the strikers.

These are just some thoughts I have had about the Occupy movement and about the U.S. left in general. I would be interested to hear what other people have to say about these topics.

Scarlet Street

July 4, 2012

Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang on the set of Scarlet Street

Fritz Lang’s 1945 film, Scarlet Street, from a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, is based on La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardière. (Jean Renoir also made a film adaptation of this work. I saw it years ago, and I don’t remember much about it. I don’t think it is one of Renoir’s best films.)

Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) works as a bank cashier living in Brooklyn. He is trapped in a loveless marriage to Adele (Rosalind Ivan). His one pleasure in life is painting. One night while he is walking home from an office party, he sees a woman being attacked by a man. Cross hits the man with his umbrella and the latter runs away. Cross then offers to walk the woman home. Her name is Kitty (Joan Bennett). She doesn’t tell Cross that the man who hit her was actually her gambling-addicted boyfriend, Johnny (Dan Duryea). Cross and Kitty stop at a bar and have drinks. When Kitty asks him what he does for a living, Cross, wanting to look good in her eyes, tells her that he is a painter. This impresses Kitty, who thinks that painters make a lot of money. The next day she tells Johnny about this. Johnny senses an opportunity here. He persuades a reluctant Kitty to continue seeing Cross, who is clearly attracted to her, so she can wheedle money out of him. Kitty then persuades Cross to pay for an expensive studio apartment for her. Cross has to steal the money from his wife’s savings. As part of his deal with Kitty, Cross gets to use the place to do his painting. He leaves some of his paintings there. When Johnny finds them, he takes a couple to a street vendor he knows, to see if he can sell them. When he comes back a few hours later, the vendor tells him that the famous art critic, Janeway (Jess Barker) has bought them, and that he wants to see more works by their creator. Johnny then pressures Kitty into taking credit for Cross’s paintings – without telling Cross.

Scarlet Street is a dark comedy that slowly builds to a tragic climax. It is a study in how small lies can spiral into violence, and how decent people can become monsters.

When Scarlet Street was first released, Bosley Crowther, who was then the film critic for the New York Times wrote:

    In the role of the love-blighted cashier Edward G. Robinson performs monotonously and with little illumination of an adventurous spirit seeking air. And, as the girl whom he loves, Joan Bennett is static and colorless, completely lacking the malevolence that should flash in her evil role. Only Dan Duryea as her boy friend hits a proper and credible stride, making a vicious and serpentine creature out of a cheap, chiseling tinhorn off the streets.

This is almost the opposite of what I saw in this film. I thought Duryea’s performance was too cartoonish; he seemed too much like the Hollywood stereotype of the “tough guy”. Exaggeration was, of course, part of Lang’s Expressionist aesthetic, so he may have wanted to Duryea to act this way, but he seemed to me to be too much like a supporting player from a Dead End Kids movie. I found Joan Bennett much more believable. She manages to convey a sense that her character feels conflicted about what she is doing. (I can only suppose that Crowther wanted her character to be more like the Wicked Witch of the West.) As for Robinson, in the early scenes he seems to be trying too hard to come across as mild-mannered. As his character gradually becomes corrupted, however, his performance starts to pick up energy. He is powerful in the final scenes.

Scarlet Street is perhaps Lang’s best American film.

Andy Griffith (1926-2012)

July 3, 2012

Most people will remember Andy Griffith for The Andy Griffith Show. I will always remember him for his performance in A Face in the Crowd. This is one of those films that remind you how little things have changed.