Archive for May, 2015

The ISO: Where the Personal Becomes Political

May 31, 2015


Lately, I have been thinking about an incident that happened when I was a member of the Los Angeles ISO branch in the late 1990’s. I think it illustrates a problem that far left groups sometimes run into.

One Saturday afternoon I received a phone call from a woman who was a member of the branch committee. She told me there was going to be an emergency branch meeting that evening and everyone was required to attend. When I asked her what this emergency was, she refused to tell me. This greatly annoyed me, because I had already made plans for the evening. However, being the “Leninist” that I thought I was, I felt obligated to go.

The meeting was held in the apartment of one of the branch members. There were about ten of us. There weren’t enough chairs, so some people sat on the floor. It turned out that the “emergency” consisted of this: two people (one of whom was the woman who called me on the phone) had been assigned the task of designing a flier for an upcoming event. One of them, the woman who called me on the phone, had gone ahead and made the flier and distributed it without consulting the other person. When this person complained to another branch committee member about this, he responded by calling her a “Menshevik”. (I’m not making this up. People in the ISO actually say things like this.)

So, this was the “emergency” that had caused me to cancel my plans. What struck me was how incredibly seriously everyone took this. (Everyone with the exception of me, that is.) A branch committee member read passages from Lenin and from James Cannon. He then lectured us about what a “cadre” is. (I swear, I’m not making any of this up.) He then claimed that there was a faction within the branch. (In the ISO, factions are considered to be very bad things.) I don’t remember much else about what was said. My mind had pretty much tuned out at this point.

When I drove home that night, I felt angry with myself for having allowed these people to waste my time with such nonsense. I was tempted to quit the ISO. But I didn’t. (The woman who was called a “Menshevik” left the ISO shortly afterwards.) I think this was because I liked the ISO’s politics, even though I didn’t always agree with what they did in practice. And I didn’t know of any other groups that had quite these same politics.

The point I’m trying to get at here is that one of the pitfalls of working in a small group is that people tend to develop strong personal ties to one another in this situation. A disagreement over a flier becomes an “emergency” that threatens to tear the group apart. It seems to me that the best way to try to avoid this sort of thing is to try to organize on as broad a basis as possible. I admit that’s not an easy thing to do, especially considering the deep divisions that exist on the Left at the moment. But I don’t see any other way to move forward.

Dark Star: The World of HR Giger

May 23, 2015


HR Giger (pronounced geeger) was a Swiss artist who was known for the dark subject matter of his works. They depict the weird and the bizarre, often with a subtle, and sometimes blatant, eroticism. Belinda Sallin’s documentary about him was made shortly before his death. In it, he comes across as taciturn, but nonetheless likable. (He looked a bit like Brother Theodore.) He lived in a house that looked like a museum of the macabre. In one scene, Giger shows us a skull that he says his father gave him when he was a child. (He says that his father, a pharmacist, was given the skull by Ciba-Geigy, a pharmaceutical company. I would have liked to learned more of the details about this.) He says that he would pull the skull along the street with a string. He did this in order to try to lessen his fear of it. This film subtly suggests that this anecdote can be seen as a metaphor for Giger’s career.

Giger’s ex-wife tells us that he never really grew up. In one scene, we see him riding around on a miniature railroad that he built in his backyard. (Not suprisingly, he liked cats.) Giger tells us that he had a happy childhood. He was apparently close to his mother, although he says he found his father a “mystery”. The only tragic part of his life concerned the death of his one-time lover, the actress Li Tobler, who committed suicide. Giger admits to be being haunted by the question of whether he could have done something to prevent this.

I have to admit that I’m not a great admirer of Giger’s work. I find the recurring themes and images, and unrelenting bleakness, a bit monotonous after a while. However, this film gave me a certain respect for the man. He was determined to follow his own vision, and he managed to acquire a devoted following.

About Elly

May 16, 2015


About Elly is a 2009 Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi, who also directed A Seperation, which won an Academy Award for best foreign language picture.

Three couples go on a three-day trip to a resort on the shore of the Caspian sea along with their children. One of them, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), brings along her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). She wants to introduce her to her friend, Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who has recently divorced from his German wife. Things go well the first day, although Elly sometimes seems a bit uncomfortable. On the second day, she disappears, and people fear that she may have drowned. The characters gradually begin to blame one another for what happened. Much of the blame centers on Sepideh, as it becomes clear that she hasn’t been completely honest about some things.

About Elly is a subtle and complex drama that touches upon many different ideas: the fact that good intentions can have bad results, the fragility of human relationships, how small deceptions can a devastating effect on people. This is the most powerful and troubling film that I have seen in quite a while.

One thing that struck me about this movie is that the men and women interact in a more-or-less equal manner. (The men have subtle advantages over the women, although one could make that argument about our society as well.) Iran is an Islamic theocracy, like Saudi Arabia. Yet, based on what I know about the latter country, I can’t imagine people there behaving in quite this way. (I certainly can’t imagine people in areas controlled by ISIS acting in this way.) This can be seen as evidence that Islam is a more complex religion than many self-styled “experts” on Islam are willing to admit.

It’s clear that the influence of Muslim and Iranian cultural notions about honor, propriety, and the role of women lead to Sepideh’s deceitful behavior, with grievous consequences for Sepideh herself. She is a great tragic figure.

F for Fake

May 9, 2015


Orson Welles called F for Fake a “film essay”. That is, while it isn’t a narrative film, it’s not a documentary, because it doesn’t claim to be entirely factual. Welles seemed to think that he invented this genre, but many film historians would disagree. For example, many view Vertov’s 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera, as a film essay. Regardless of this, F for Fake is innovative in that it uses the medium of film to question the truthfulness of film itself.

F for Fake touches on a wide range of topics, but it is mainly concerned with the story of Elmyr de Hory, a French-Hungarian art forger, and the writer, Clifford Irving. Irving wrote a biography of de Hory, and then he committed a forgery of his own, writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Handwriting experts declared the manuscript to be real. (Welles suggests that de Hory forged Hughes’s handwriting.) Both de Hory and Irving express a dismissive attitude towards “experts”. One gets the sense that this film may have been meant as a subtle dig at the critic, Pauline Kael, who wrote an essay about Citizen Kane, in which she claimed that Welles didn’t write any of the script.

F for Fake uses a variety of visual tricks. There are scenes in which Irving and de Hory seem to be talking to each other, but they are actually shots from two different interviews that have been spliced together. This film serves as a demonstration that we can take nothing at face value.

The Criterion Collection DVD of this film includes the documentary, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, which was co-directed and co-written by Welles’s girlfriend, Oja Kodar. This film concentrates on Welles’s later years and includes scenes from many of the unfinished films he made, as well as from the unreleased film The Other Side of the Wind. (And the fact that this film remains unreleased is a scandal.) Among other things, we learn that Welles was obsessed with Moby Dick. Over the years he shot numerous scenes of himself reciting passages from this work, although it was unclear what he intended to do with these. Welles seemed to identify with the character of Ahab. Like Ahab, he spent much of his life pursuing something – in his case success – he could never quite achieve.

Welles also made this bizarre nine-minute trailer for F for Fake:


May 2, 2015


Tangerines, written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, is set during the War in NiAbkhazia (1992–93). Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) lives in an Estonian settlement in Abkhazia. After war breaks out between Georgia and Abkhazia, most of the people in the village go back to Estonia, but Ivo stays to help Margus (Elmo Nüganen) harvest his tangerine orchard. A gunfight between Georgian and Abkhazian soldiers takes place near his home. He and Margus find only two soldiers still alive, but wounded. One is Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary fighting for the Abkhazians, and the other is Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian. Ahmed is determined to avenge the death of his friend, Ibrahim, who was killed in the fight. However, Ivo makes him promise that he won’t harm Niko so long as he is under Ivo’s roof. Ivo then has to maintain an uneasy truce between the two men.

Tangerines is the most deeply moving film I have seen in a long time. Much of the film’s emotional power is due to the strong performances of the actors, especially Ulfsak and Nakashidze. This film is a denunciation of the destructive effect of mindless nationalism. It is one ranks alongside of Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory as one of the great war films of all time.