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The Hollywoodization of the Heartland
With the annual awards meeting of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) on Sunday, December 8th, I feel like I am cramming for a final exam made all the more daunting by my failure to have done any homework the entire year. In my case, the homework was the Hollywood movies that my colleagues cover methodically while I am off tracking down obscure neorealist fiction films from the global semi-periphery or snarling Marxist documentaries. My job is made easier by the buckets of screeners the studios begin sending me as a member of NYFCO in mid-November, most of which I hurl into the garbage can after 15 minutes or so. This year the discards include “Bling Ring” and “Spring Breakers”, which now that I think about it might have come in under the five-minute mark. In fact I might have hit “eject” on “Spring Breakers” during the opening credits.
Perhaps as a function of the grim economic reality, the studios have put their muscle behind two films that depart from the sort of vacuous escapism that most moviegoers dote on. They are “Out of the Furnace” that opens this week at better movie theaters everywhere and “Nebraska” that has been around for a few weeks. While the reviews for “Out of the Furnace” have been mixed (64 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, where my reviews appear), “Nebraska” is right up there with other Oscar contenders, registering a 91 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.
Critics generally view the two films as being cut from the same cloth as John Steinbeck or Woody Guthrie. A.O. Scott of the N.Y. Times describes “Nebraska” as depicting “a small-town America that is fading, aging and on the verge of giving up…blighted by envy, suspicion and a general failure of good will. Hard times are part of the picture, and so are hard people.”
Meanwhile, Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott’s colleague at the N.Y. Times, describes “Out of the Furnace” as just the kind of movie an unrepentant Marxist would stand on line for:
In movies, the working class often serves as a sacrificial emblem of the failure of the American dream, one that these days is often embellished with lovingly photographed decay and an elegiac air. Set in a corroded stretch of the Rust Belt, “Out of the Furnace” ups the ante with a story of two blue-collar brothers — a steel mill welder and a former soldier — who are as totemic as the figures immortalized in a Works Progress Administration mural.
Let me now proceed to explain why both of these films, with their phony sincerity oozing from their pores like a Hallmark mother’s day card, will get a “rotten” rating from me on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Nebraska” is a road movie featuring Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, who is supposedly suffering from the early stages of Alzheimers. The symptoms are not forgetting where you live or losing track of your finances but becoming convinced that you have won a million dollars based on one of those Publisher Clearing House Sweepstakes letters. This might make help the plot move forward but it is highly unlikely in medical terms. I say that not as a physician but as a layman who has spent a fair amount of time with people suffering from dementia.
Each day Woody goes out from his home in Billings, Montana and begins walking toward Lincoln, Nebraska where the sweepstakes office is located in order to collect his prize. Since dementia has cost him his driver’s license, the only way to get there is on foot. And each day the cops pick him up and return him home. In order to humor him and possibly bond with a man who has kept him at arm’s length for their entire life, Woody’s son David decides to drive him to Lincoln. Will Forte plays David, a perfect casting choice since Forte was a regular on Saturday Night Live from 2002-2010, a show that perfected the art of making ordinary people look comically grotesque.
Despite the fact that screenwriter Bob Nelson hails from Nebraska, the perspective reminds me very much of a classic SNL skit that capitalizes on the feelings of superiority a New Yorker might feel toward a hapless rube living in small town America. It is indeed the image of America captured in the New Yorker magazine cartoon that shows a map of the United States in which everything grows vanishingly small once you get past the western border of Pennsylvania.
David Grant is depicted as a rather ordinary, middle-aged man somewhat adrift in life who works as a stereo salesman in a Best Buy type store. Everybody else, except his brother Ross who is a TV newsman after the fashion of Ron Burgundy, is a barely conscious cretin with gargoyle features. I have no idea what happened to Bob Nelson growing up in Nebraska but his movie strikes me as revenge for the people who kept him from his true mission, making it in Hollywood and going to A-list parties.
The sensibility at work reminds me very much of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”, a film that treated Twin Cities Jews as disgustingly crass and far beneath the much more developed and cosmopolitan Hollywood geniuses who were lucky enough to escape from this milieu with their brains intact.
On their way east toward Lincoln, Woody and David stop off in Hawthorne, Nebraska to say hello to Woody’s brother. This is where most of the action—such as it is—takes place. Life at the brother’s house can be described as pure rural idiocy, to use the term found in Marx’s Communist Manifesto but without its subtle dialectical understanding. Everybody in Hawthorne is some kind of idiot, believing that Woody has won the lottery no matter how many times that David explains to them that his dad is suffering from a delusion. Normal people would first of all understand that there is no reason to drive hundreds of miles to collect a prize of a million dollars but the rubes in Hawthorne are obviously not normal. They are mainly interested in drinking beer and watching football games, staring vacantly at the television set.
David’s cousins, two obese middle-aged men who live at home with their parents, are crudely drawn caricatures of Midwest life, without any of the slightly redeeming Coen brother’s comic touch (best displayed in Fargo). They are in a state of delayed adolescence, capable only of talking about cars. When David tells them that it has taken a couple of days to get from Billings to Hawthorne, they chortle about it as if it is a sign of sexual inadequacy. They could have gotten there in half the time since their cars are bigger and badder. At the dinner table, we learn that one of the brothers has spent time in prison for sexual assault, an offense not as serious as rape their mother assures David.
But they are not nearly as grotesque as Woody’s wife Kate who has joined them in Hawthorne along with Ross for a family reunion. Despite being in her mid-70s and brought up as a Catholic, just about every word out of Kate’s mouth has to do with sex. She goes on and on about “getting laid” and pulls up her skirt at the gravesite of a high school boyfriend who chose another woman over her. “You see, that’s what you were missing”, she cries out. I imagine that many smart sophisticates in New York or San Francisco will find this vastly amusing. I only cringed.
“Out of the Furnace” is a star vehicle for Christian Bale and Casey Affleck who play Russell Baze and Rodney Baze Jr., two brothers living in Braddock, Pennsylvania—part of the economically depressed Mon Valley. Despite the fact that industry has disappeared entirely from the steel belt near Pittsburgh, Bale is depicted as a welder. In real life, someone in Braddock would be more likely working in a Burger King or maybe on a sculpture, as we shall soon see.
Casey Affleck’s character is a heavily tattooed Iraq war veteran who refuses to work in a factory like his brother. He makes his living in unlicensed bare-knuckle boxing matches of the sort featured in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. In fact, despite the attempts of some critics to portray this film as the latest masterpiece about the American soul in troubled times, it has more in common with such Van Damme classics like “Kickboxer” or “Double Impact”.
Maybe if director Scott Cooper had gone whole hog to make a B-movie, I’d find this mess more acceptable. Instead, it has arty pretensions most of which seem inspired by Michael Cimino’s “Deer Hunter” set in exactly the same type of Mon Valley steel town and featuring war veterans, in that case Vietnam. It even has the same scene with Bale having a deer in his rifle’s scope but failing to pull the trigger, just like Robert De Niro in Cimino’s film.
Okay, here’s a spoiler alert. If anybody at this point wants to waste 12 dollars or so on this film, then read no further. Those who prefer snarling Marxist documentaries, let’s continue.
Midway through the film, Casey Affleck’s character persuades a local petty criminal named John Petty (Willem Dafoe) to line him up a fight in Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey, a modern-day equivalent of one of those outlaw hangouts in a cowboy movie called Vulture’s Gulch. It is filled with ornery cusses, but none worse than Curtis DeGroat, a drug dealer and bare-knuckles fight promoter played by Woody Harrelson. DeGroat is pure evil, a character who would have been played by Jack Palance or Richard Widmark in years past. When John Petty and Rodney Baze Jr. are leaving the Ramapo Mountains back to Braddock after a fight in which Affleck has taken a dive, DeGroat and his henchmen corner them on a country road and shoot both to death. When Russell Baze finds out that his brother has been killed, he plots revenge against Curtis DeGroat.
Now I, unlike most people who go to see this movie, know a bit more about the Ramapo’s than most people, having seen and reviewed a documentary called “Mann versus Ford” that recounts the struggle of Lenape Indians in the Ramapough Mountains (the same as Ramapo) against Ford Motor. In the 1950s trucks loaded with toxic waste such as paint residue would dump them into the water supplies of the Lenape Indians who lived in the area they refer to as the Ramapough Mountains. Like Indians in Ecuador or North Dakota, they were victims of powerful corporations. And, as it turns out, the most common name among the Lenapes is DeGroat.
In March 2010, there was an article about the Ramapough Mountain Indians in the New Yorker magazine, once again reminding its civilized and cosmopolitan readers that there are some ugly people out there:
“Mountain people” is a euphemism for what locals used to call “Jackson Whites”—a racial slur that the referents equate with the word “nigger.” They call themselves Ramapough Mountain Indians, or the Ramapough Lenape Nation, using an old Dutch spelling for the name of the river that cuts through the Hudson and North Jersey Highlands, although suburban whites tend to think of them as racially indeterminate clansfolk.
And getting back to today’s Braddock, there’s little in common with the way it is portrayed in “Out of the Furnace”. If you take a close look at Russell Baze’s neck, you will see the tattoo of a number there: “15104”. That’s the zip code for Braddock, the same one that Mayor John Fetterman has on his arm.
Fetterman has been trying for a number of years to turn Braddock into a haven for artists looking for cheap loft rentals, just as happening in Detroit now. This has antagonized the largely African-American population of the town that feels left out of this gentrification experiment. They were far more interested in preserving the local hospital, a struggle that Braddock long-time resident Tony Buba has documented in “We are Alive! The Fight to Save Braddock Hospital”. That is a film that is much more honest about American social reality than “Out of the Furnace”. For more on Tony Buba and Braddock, go here.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.