Archive for February, 2015

Two Days, One Night

February 25, 2015

Deux_jours,_une_nuit_poster

Two Days, One Night is a Belgian film directed by the Dardenne brothers. It tells the story of Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who works in a factory that manufactures solar panels. Management has told her fellow workers that they can have a bonus that year, but only if Sandra is laid off. They are to have the vote on this on a Monday. Sandra has one weekend in which to try to persuade her co-workers to reject their bonuses in order to save her job.

Two Days, One Night is reminiscent of the Italian neo-realist films with its simple, straightforward story and its non-condescending, non-romantic portrayal of working class people. It also benefits from strong performances, particularly from Cotillard, who is completely convincing as Sandra.

Although Sandra fails to save her job, this film ends on a quietly optimistic note, which is far more emotionally satisfying than the contrived “feel good” endings so many Hollywood films.

Foxcatcher

February 18, 2015

Foxcatcher_First_Teaser_Poster

Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, from a screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, is loosely based on real events. In a way, this film is similar to Winter’s Sleep, in that it portrays how wealth creates distances between people, although it is structurally quite different.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic Gold Medal wrestler who is just barely scraping by financially. John du Pont (Steve Carell), an heir of the du Pont fortune, offers Schultz a job coaching a wrestling team that will train on the grounds of his family estate. As time goes by, however, Schultz realizes that du Pont actually wants to replace him with his more charismatic brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo).

Du Pont is depicted as emotionally stunted and prone to self-delusion. It becomes clear that he is using the team both to promote himself and to fulfill his own fantasies about being an athlete. Both Mark and Dave Schultz work for him only because of the generous pay and state-of-the-art facilities he can afford to give them. In one scene, du Pont tells Mark that his only friend when he was growing up was the son of his mother’s chauffeur. He eventually found out that his mother was paying him to be his friend. Du Pont’s relationships with other people are all basically about money.

A sense of growing uneasiness pervades this film. Du Pont’s delusions of grandeur are combined with a hidden resentment of Mark and Dave. He envies them not just for their athletic ability, but also because they are situated in the real world in a way that he can never be. Their relationships with other people are not all defined by money. The film’s tragic climax is shocking, but at the same time oddly unsurprising. Foxcatcher is an examination of the subtly corrupting power of money.

More Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’: The Enigma of Stalin

February 16, 2015

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In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt notes numerous similarities between Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union under Stalin on the other. In particular, the use of terror – that is, the violent persecution of whole sections of the population – which Arendt sees as the defining characteristic of totalitarianism. (According to Arendt, the Soviet Union became totalitarian in 1930, whereas Nazi Germany didn’t become fully totalitarian until the Second World War.) According to Arendt, the aim of this terror is “total domination”, which will eventually lead to some ultimate goal: in the case of Nazi Germany, “world conquest”; in the case of Stalinist Russia, “world revolution”. I think Arendt was right about the first, but wrong about the second. It seems to me that Stalin pretty much gave up on world revolution after Hitler came to power in Germany (and maybe before then). Whet, then, was Stalin’s aim? Some have suggested that it was rapid industrialization, but Arendt argues that Stalin’s purges actually hampered industrial development. Scientists, engineers, and managers were swept up in the purges, depriving Soviet industry of needed expertise. Others have argued that Stalin was paranoid, although this fails to explain the deep trust that Stalin showed towards Hitler. (Stalin refused to believe his agents when they told him that Germany was preparing to invade the Soviet Union. According to Krushchev, Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown when he was informed of the attack.)

So, what was Stalin’s aim? It seems he enjoyed wielding power as an end in itself. He persecuted people because he could. At the time of his death, he was planning another massive purge, one that would begin by targeting Jews. It’s hard to see what this could possibly have accomplished. After Stalin’s death, the purge plans were dropped, and the Gulag was emptied out. According to Arendt, the Soviet Union ceased to be totalitarian at this point, reverting to a one-party dictatorship.

One is struck by how much Stalin’s personality drove events in the Soviet Union. As someone who has always been critical of the “Great Man” view of history, I find this troubling. As a Marxist, I have always tried to take as strictly materialist approach to historical events, but there seems to be times when this approach becomes inadequate.

Timbuktu

February 8, 2015

Timbuktu_poster

Timbuktu, a film by Abderrahmane Sissako, is about the 2012 occupation of the ancient Malian city by the Islmaist group, Ansar Dine. In episodic form, the film depicts the suffering and passive resistance of the city’s residents.

Ansar Dine forbids people from listening to music (including religious music), smoking, and playing soccer. They require women to veil themselves and wear gloves. They carry out floggings and stonings of people who violate their rules.

The film is centered around Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a herdsman who lives with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and his daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), outside the city. When Kidane kills a man during a fight, the Islamists arrest him. One of the leaders tells Kidane that he can pay “blood money” to the victim’s family in the form of forty cows. When Kidane tells them he only has seven cows, they condemn him to death.

One of the strengths of Timbuktu is that it depicts the brutality of the Islamists without demonizing them. Instead, the film show how their own desires and interests conflict with the severe form of Sunni Islam that they’ve embraced. For example, one of the leaders has to hide the fact that he smokes from his men. In one scene, we see some of the soldiers discussing World Cup soccer. Another soldier clearly has reservations about what Ansar Dine is doing, but he is afraid to break with them. One of the leaders argues with an imam who criticizes what they are doing.

Timbuktu is a great film. It is a profoundly moving condemnation of religious fundamentalism and an assertion of human dignity.