The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: April, 2016

Celebration of the Art of May Day

Growing up in North America, I first learned about May Day from pictures of Soviet military parades in my history books. I knew it was a Soviet national holiday but had no idea why until I learned about the Haymarket massacre and the strikes for the eight-hour day, which significant changed its meaning for me. Particularly in countries where Labour Day acts as a gentler official alternative to the real workers’ day, May Day can seem a bit arcane and distant. Still, since tomorrow is May Day and I’ll be heading down to the local rally––unfortunately more of a parade than a confrontational demonstration––I wanted to celebrate the art of May Day, the various ways that communities all around the world have been getting out the call to workers to join marches, parties, and demonstrations on May 1.

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This poster from England in 1895 serves as an excellent example of commemorative art from the labour movement of that era. A women personifying justice holds up a garland of workers’ demands for an end to child labour, for socialism, for shorter working days. It’s a beautiful use of monochromatic art in a style I associate with book illustrations of the time.

Between 1920-40: Soviet Constructivist Poster

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The power of this image derives not only from its striking vertical composition and the dynamic way the red flag angles around the giant numeral 1, but also its use of photographic images stamped onto the flag. It also reflects the imperative demands of the early Soviet era: industrialization and the consolidation of proletarian power in the country

Italian Socialist Poster: 1902

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Another example of turn-of-the-century poster graphic design, this piece from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) uses heavy outlines to good effect, though I have my qualms about the impassive facial expressions on the workers here. They look resolute, to be sure, but also quite reserved.

PFLP Poster: 1981

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The PFLP probably produced most of my favourite twentieth century political poster art, and this one fits well with their powerful aesthetic. We have the classic iconography of communism––the book, the hammer, and the sickle––placed against an energetic red-white-and-yellow background that highlights the foreground elements. I would seek out more of the PFLP’s work if you enjoy this piece.

Turkish May Day Poster: 2010

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May Day rallies were officially prohibited in Turkey between 1977 and 2010––and probably not looked upon well by the Erdogan government to this day––and this poster comes from that latter year. Like many more recent posters for May Day, it borrows the classic aesthetics of internationalism and workers’ struggle while using specifically digital editing hallmarks like the star between the two hands in this piece.

Business Cat Meme Poster: Early-Mid 2010s

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Speaking of recent innovations in poster design, this poster’s inversion of the “business cat” meme certainly marks it as the most unique bit of art in this retrospective. It doesn’t stick to the format of the meme, but its rows of feline calls to action are still cute, though its effectiveness is less clear.

IWW May Day Grand Rapids: 2011

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Since I wanted to finish this retrospective with some more recent posters from my own social contexts, I couldn’t leave this text-only poster out. Despite not including any images and reminding me of a music festival band list, I think it evokes the feeling of an old newspaper ad section quite well. Its variations in font size, spacing, and thickness sell the concept even if it is extremely simple. I only wish I had been more aware of left happenings in Grand Rapids when I lived there!

May Day Toronto: 2016

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And, yes, the march I will be attending tomorrow. Though it first appears cluttered and somewhat scatterbrained, I find that it actually coheres fairly well. It covers the major themes of May Day––police brutality, racism, the environment, indigenous solidarity, migrants’ and international workers’ solidarity, etc. It’s certainly not a traditional rendering of these themes, but that’s perfectly fine and shows that there are a number of ways to address the same issues even when framed by the same holiday.

RCP May Day Initiatives: 2016

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Those looking for a more traditional, if still contemporary, look to their May Day celebration posters can find them in the RCP initiatives for May Day. I’m quite fond of both of these images, particularly the sketchy and ink-blotched art style of the bottom one. Since they’re designed more as online banners than physical posters, they also reflect the changing ways in which people hear about and are motivated to go to May Day rallies. Both also emphasize the combative and rebellious nature of the holiday, which I have to say I prefer to the more polite and restrained style of the official work, even if the latter is overall more attractive.

Well, readers, another May Day is upon us. I wish you all the best and that we can all struggle for workers’ and people’s power together.

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Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 7: Hey Good Lookin’

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Hey Good Lookin’ might be the least known of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography. Completed and intended for release in 1975, it was conceived as a live action/animation hybrid documenting life in New York in the 1950s. Using largely improvised dialogue, it would be a natural continuation of Bakshi’s work on Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, only taking it further by being mostly in live action with only the protagonists being rendered in animation. Warner Bros. balked at releasing a feature so experimental in the wake of Coonskin’s botched release, demanding that the film be entirely animated. For more than half a decade, Bakshi and a small team of artists worked on the film on the side while Wizards, Lord of the Rings, and American Pop were released, all to decent financial success. In a bittersweet conclusion to the story, Warner Bros. decided to give the film a token release in 1982, all but burying it on a few screens before it disappeared forever. We’ve seen a paltry home video release record since then, with nary a hair of the original live-action hybrid footage appearing.

Hey Good Lookin’ returns to the Brooklyn of Bakshi’s youth in the 1950s. Our protagonist is Vinnie, the leader of the Brooklyn Stompers gang and who seems to have earned his position more with impeccable hair and clothes than fighting ability or strategic acumen. His best friend is Crazy Shapiro, a hot-blooded son of a homicidal cop with an almost total lack of self-control. The third member of our main trio is Roz, the daughter of a strict rabbi who fancies Vinnie as some kind of Adonis. Much of the time, we’re also in the company of Roz’s friend Eva, portrayed as a soft-hearted naïf (who has an obsession with making peanut butter sandwiches). Many of the film’s scenes are just records of these characters hanging out getting up to youthful mischief.

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When a plot starts to take shape, it takes shape along racial lines. Vinnie, while dashing away from a confrontation with raging Sicilian mobsters, runs into the Chaplains, the local black gang. They arrange a rumble between the two gangs, and Vinnie is stuck with the task of motivating the lackadaisical Stompers into agreeing to fight the Chaplains. Like all of Bakshi’s “urban trilogy,” this plot functions as more the most important of a series of episodes rendered in jerky animation and performed with dialogue that at least sounds improvised most of the time. At the very least, we do have a proper climax, with the two gangs brawling while the cops start a firefight. Suffice to say that not all ends well for our band of friends, and that Vinnie’s habit of avoiding sticky situations––so as not to muss up his hair, most likely––does not earn him the greatest respect. After all, he has a difficult time even convincing the gang he supposedly leads to get into a scrap.

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A great shot of Vinnie’s taste for kitsch interior decorating.

Most of the appeal of this film, then, lies in the rapport between our leads. Vinnie, Roz, and Crazy are all rough characters, but endearing for the most part. Most notably, our cast includes Richard Romantus and David Proval as Vinne and Crazy, both fine actors who also starred in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Tina Romanus, credited under the pseudonym Tina Bowman, rounds out the main trio as Roz. Their conversations are naturalistic and have the variable, analogue pacing one would associate with chatting with friends. The contrast between the grounded dialogue and the highly stylized and frenetic animation produces frustration as well as enjoyment. Hey Good Lookin’ carries a sense of being rooted in a particular time and place, but it’s not a film one can get lost in or invest oneself in. There’s a constant sense of being put off, of being a mere and conscious observer at all times. That impression is occasionally shattered by the humour and the sense of good fun, but the film remains alienating overall.

Despite its rough production history, the final version that we got still features some striking images. SOMe of the backgrounds break from the scratchy, gritty style we know Bakshi for and uses photographic or pop-art collage. Vinnie’s room is the prime example, a menagerie of 50s ephemera that inform the character just as much as his trademark hair and many-zippered leather jacket, which eventually becomes a token of memory. Like American Graffiti (and Happy Days, though without any sanitizing impulses), Hey Good Lookin’ depicts the 50s through the eyes of the 1970s. It has little kinship to the media of the 50s except by way of short references, eschewing the sophisticated brooding of late noir and the insipid blandness of most 50s television. It’s not a postmodern comment on the nostalgia for the 50s but rather an earnest attempt to expose the roughness that Bakshi saw in New York in his youth, though never without that old-school cartoon sensibility that he brings to even his most realistic work. The film’s nostalgia is more honest than many other 70s attempts to revive the 50s, certainly revealing in a time gone by but without the desire to present the past as an idealized lost age.

Take, for example, the scathing portrayal of a white 50s rock vocal group who come to put on a show for our protagonists. Their mannerisms and appearances are grotesque, their talent questionable, and their end…rather messy. By which I mean, they get flattened by a car that bursts through the wall of the auditorium. It’s both laughably grim slapstick and a potential dig at the white appropriation of black music starting with Elvis. And while the soundtrack oozes in 50s nostalgia, with original songs standing in for classics Bakshi couldn’t afford to license, its relationship to 50s music in the narrative is much more ambiguous, as is the rest of the film.

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Which brings us to a question that I often reflect on when watching and contemplating Bakshi’s entire filmography: what is animation’s capacity for realism? So many of his films attempt to capture the sense of a particular time and place and to pass for a realistic portrayal of people and settings. Characters are set against photographic backdrops, dance to or sing real popular songs (in diegesis), and are voiced in unconventionally spontaneous ways. Character design and movement, however, are rooted in cartoon caricature and exaggerated animation styles. “Realism” in Bakshi’s urban trilogy emerges mainly from setting and writing rather than character animation. When cartoony characters are placed in a setting and in situations that are antithetical to more traditional animated fantasy, the effect is to highlight the alienating difference of the surrounding environment. It grounds the drama so that when more sombre moments arrive, they can be executed with more gravity.

Contrast this with the Disney’s approach, which is to animate characters as realistically as possible while placing them in fantastical and exotic settings. Though the difference is partly a result of economic constraints on Bakshi’s films, it also exposes an essentially different way of viewing animation as a medium as well as its role in reproducing reality. Disney creates worlds that are inviting and that stand in for the universal, beckoning viewers into a world that is comforting and familiar in its distance from our own. Bakshi wants us to see the world through his own perspective, taking us to his hometown and giving us the grand tour of his favourite dives and introducing us to the memorable people he knows. What’s important in Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Hey Good Lookin’ is not so much that the characters look and move realistically but that they interact with their setting and fellow people in ways that we can recognize. They make no pretence to universality or accessibility, and their locations are both closer to our own and removed from us by gonzo exaggeration. It’s not an inversion of Disney, but a rejection of Disney’s approach in favour of something more explicitly political and personal on both an aesthetic and narrative level. A contemporary comparison for us would be autobiographical comics like Persepolis that similarly use highly abstract or exaggerated styles to tell much more specific stories.

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For me, Hey Good Lookin’ is the least successful of Bakshi’s movies. It exposes his weaknesses in ungainly ways and has a lower density of bravura surrealist moments or truthful introspection/commentary. Most of the quality in the film is much more low key. It’s in the conversations and performances, which are much more difficult to highlight in a short blog post. All of his failings in depicting women I’ve described earlier reappear here, though there is one scene of Roz and Eva encouraging each other and bantering that I rather liked. Let’s just say that you can readily identify the woman protagonist of a Bakshi film by finding the character whose nipples are visible through her shirt. Not a distinction I would personally covet.

That said, I would not write off Hey Good Lookin’, and it has its notable fans, including Quentin Tarantino (not an arbiter of good taste by any means, but worth pointing out). Someday, I would love to see the original live action hybrid film and see how much lustre the project lost in its seven-year hell of refashioning and neglect, but what we have is an occasionally hilarious, rough-hewn animated film with some scenes that make the viewing experience marginally worthwhile.

Book Review: The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy by Minqi Li

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Most of the rhetoric around the rise of China in the West is either pure demagoguery calling Chinese workers job thieves or the intertwining discourses about China’s inevitable world takeover or inevitable decline. As Li points out in the second paragraph of his book, The Rise of China is more about “the ‘demise of the capitalist world economy’ than ‘the rise of China.'”¹ Drawing primarily on Marxist economic thought and world systems theorists like Wallerstein and Arrighi, Li’s book explores the implications of China’s rise on the capitalist world economy as a whole. As for his conclusions in that regard, he tips his hand from the title onward: the prospects for global capitalism in the twenty-first century are not good, and the rise of China represents only one of the insurmountable obstacles he sees in its future.

To establish why China poses such an existential threat to the smooth operation of the global capitalist system, Li first has to properly grasp the internal reasons for China’s rapid ascent since 1989. Unlike most authors on this issue, Li pins the primary reasons for China’s succeeding where most peripheral Third World countries have failed on the achievements of the Mao era. From 1949-1976, the Communists oversaw the industrialization of the country, rapid advances in health care, education, and standards of living, and the creation of a powerful  nation-state capable of imposing its will on economic activity.

Revolutionary China was quite successful at accumulating capital  in isolation from the world market, protected from the distorting influences of being relegated to a reserve of cheap labour and resource extraction––well, at least until the reform era––and able to develop a strong and independent industrial base. He certainly offers a left critique of the Chinese party-state during this time, noting the creation of a new bourgeois technocratic class and the failure of the Cultural Revolution in dissipating the threat they posed. He also criticizes the Great Leap Forward for being an overambitious failure of policy while refuting claims (à la Jung Chang and Halliday) that it was some human-engineered act of madness or “the largest famine in history.” In Li’s estimation, though China’s communists succeeded in creating a modern state and establishing general social welfare and capital accumulation, they failed in the intense class struggles that developed after the revolution despite the Cultural Revolution––and, in many cases, because of the mismanagement of the CR itself.

He then engages in an analysis of the class system of China after the Deng Xiaoping reforms and in particular in the wake of privatization and liberalization in the 1990s. He concludes that, despite all the fuss over the rise of China’s entrepreneurial and middle classes, the most dramatic shift in China’s demographics has been the decline in the rural peasantry and the rise of an increasingly organized and dense industrial proletariat. Given the history of labour movements, he concludes that this means the Chinese working class will grow more and more conscious and active within China, able to challenge capital for at least a larger share of the immense wealth accumulated in the country each year.

Still, that material is only background for the true purpose of the book, which is to explain why the capitalist world system will be unable to accommodate a China that demands even middle-country status. For Li, it’s all about population, as China “has a labor force that is larger than the total labor force in all of the core states.”² China’s sheer size and the number of proletarian workers there who are currently agitating more and more for greater wages and higher living standards means that the global economic system will struggle to accommodate these demands in its current form. Given the environmental limits on the amount of energy use and capital accumulation that exist, Li argues, there is a hard limit on capital’s ability to expand geographically to cover up its weaknesses. Given only one Earth, he concludes, the rise of China (and India) will mean the inevitable collapse of the current capitalist system, though its replacement by a socialist/communist world system is far from inevitable.

Though the book ends on something of a grim note––and makes some potentially Malthusian comments about the inevitability of a collapse in the human population that could be taken badly out of context––Li, as a Marxist, does not simply concede global society to oblivion. He does, however, believe that capitalism will end, for good or bad, by around the middle of this coming century. His work is both a timely warning and a call to action for those who want to found a human society free of want, and accomplishes all the above while being readable and quite brief. I would eventually like to see a fuller elaboration of his theses––and Robert Biel has produced something more systematic in this vein––but Rise of China has an undeniable relevance to our current moment and a reminder of the inevitability of change, demanding that we take charge of its direction.

Notes:

  1. Minqi Li, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), ix.
  2. Ibid, 109.

Late Post Apology

Since my policy has been to publish book reviews on Sunday, I apologize for missing that date. Because of a variety of other work, I was not able to finish it. I will be publishing it tomorrow and continue the Bakshi series on schedule on Wednesday. Thanks for your patience.

Political and Personal Partnerships

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Happy birthday to Lenin as well! All we’re missing is the cat.

I was recently finishing up Lumpen: The Autobiography of Ed Mead and was impressed by the amount of time Mead dedicates to matters of love and partnership. Given how much of his life was spent in revolutionary activity, I found this somewhat unexpected. People would be picking up this book to learn about his militant exploits, not descriptions of his lovers and friendships, after all. Still, it led me to think more carefully about the topic of how to handle personal partnerships when you claim to pursue revolutionary politics. Given that I have more than three years of experience with my current partner (and comrade blogger!), I felt it fitting to record my reflections.

Relationships are Never Worth Preserving for Their Own Sake

This is a play on the idea that the Marxist party––or any political form or relation––is not worth valuing in itself. Rather, it’s a tool, an apparatus that has a particular purpose and needs to be embedded in its organic base. A partnership between two people is a means of providing mutual support, emotional and often sexual fulfillment, and an environment where all members can grow and change in a healthy way. Love is the point, not one exact form that needs to be protected like a sacred object. This can cause huge problems for people who stay together far longer than they should or see their partners in a fixed way and can’t accommodate personal evolution. Relationships should be treated seriously, just like political work, but always with the correct goal in mind: mutual support and fulfillment of each person. Fervent attachment to the idea of a relationship can lead to abuses and hurts far worse than mere separation. Not to say that separation isn’t also incredibly damaging in many cases, but even the latter is often made more arduous simply because each person was attached to one particular form of a relationship rather than, truly, to the loved ones in all their complexity.

The Ownership Model Produces Jealousy and Venom

The bourgeois nuclear family has countless ardent defenders. These suburban paladins will ascribe all kinds of magical fetishistic powers to the Victorian family, and to them I say humbug. Call me the Wedding Scrooge if you must, but the reality is that classical marriage is founded on a property relationship: the woman becomes the object of exchange, transferred from her father’s family to that of her husband. Western marriage rituals are all rooted in this financial reality, not to mention the fact that marriage usually happens within your own class and serves to solidify your economic position. Our white dresses and cakes and mirror balls conceal the slick tentacles of corruption and mixed motives. I don’t mean to demean marriage itself––I’m married and don’t mind it much––but it’s important to recognize that the entire legal apparatus around marriage is constructed because it is a property relationship, one built for lawyers, jewellers, and life insurance agents as much as the loving partners. Every love marriage in capitalism is afflicted by money relations, which saddens me profoundly.

A fetish for ownership and possession also rests at the root of a lot of jealousy and dishonesty within relationships. I personally struggle with feelings of professional envy, especially when my partner is able to take advantage of opportunities that I don’t have. At the same time, I recognize that jealousy and resentment are antithetical to a loving bond, not to mention the politically correct way to treat a fellow traveller with whom you are also in love. As Spinoza emphasized, feelings of resentment and schadenfreude are symptoms of minds that are sickened by what he called sad affects, products of our irrational imagination. Putting down your partner because you feel envious or distressed just diminishes yourself––it puts you at a distance from one of your greatest allies and probably hurts your health as much as your heart. Partners often stand hand in hand to flourish together, but at times their paths diverge and they have to allow their significant others to grow. This relates back to point 1. The central point is: you don’t own your partner, their time, or their other relationships. Honesty and open criticism are your friends, not secrecy and turning narc on one another.

Sharing Politics: Criticism, Struggle and Unity

Though I would never demand that my partner mirror my exact politics––that would be neither possible nor healthy––I do believe that it’s important for partnerships to rest on a foundation of shared values and interests. Because of that, it’s difficult to imagine myself in a relationship with a liberal or, god forbid, a reactionary. Desire works its designs in strange and ambiguous ways, but a lasting and healthy partnership is probably impossible across a cavernous political gap. A partnership, after all, has to be an environment that ensures that each member doesn’t have to waste their energy suppressing themselves or fighting with their significant other.

At the moment, my notion of an ideal relationship between two subjects who are just as political as they are amorous is that they are able to debate and struggle with each other without losing a common foundation of respect and principles. Engaging the other member of the partnership, criticizing them when necessary, and being willing to receive open criticism, are all crucial for staving off the spectre of secrecy, gossip, and backbiting. In political discussions with my partner, although I often take a teaching role because of my slightly more advanced comprehension of political ideology, I have to be aware that her own experiences and knowledge are likely to surpass mine in certain areas, and to be humble before her on such questions. Nothing ever works out perfectly, but the fact that we have a strong friendship and good communication in general enables our little talks to be more productive and meaningful than they otherwise might be.

Conclusion

I’m quite young and do not have the iron-tested experience of many people I know. Still, I think I’ve had a long enough time to reflect and am attentive enough to offer some insight into those reflections. Just as no political party or work of art will be pure, so the relationship is constantly incomplete and imperfect, always pushing its member s towards new heights of solidarity. I’m quite thankful to my partner for the time we’ve had together, and strongly believe we’ll have our best times in the future.

Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 6: American Pop

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American Pop  (1981) tells the story of a Jewish American family over multiple generations from fleeing a pogrom in Russia to selling coke to New York punk bands. It’s Bakshi’s mostly completely realized  film after Coonskin, and the one that feels least compromised by budget constraints and studio shenanigans. The script, though written by Ronni Kern, lends itself narratively and structurally to Bakshi’s preferred aesthetic approach. Collage and rotoscoping are both excellent tools for showing the progression of time and the evolution of a family as they meet the challenges of 20th century American life. A flexible approach is perfect for a film that makes several drastic narrative shifts during its relatively short length, and the fact that Bakshi was able to license an incredible soundtrack for his pop music period epic is crucial to making the entire piece hang together as well as it does.

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Multi-generational stories that follow a long succession of main characters through a cavalcade of popular culture styles and historical eras are not typical in animation. Most of the time, stories like this are produced as three-hour live action epics designed to win awards or earn studio prestige. Since animation is expensive and time-consuming, a three-hour film probably wasn’t possible in this case. Additionally, the American animation industry has an almost insatiable addiction to fantasy stories, using animation’s expressive powers of abstraction to render “the impossible” onscreen. It’s much more unusual for the American industry to produce a rotoscoped film that tends to stick pretty closely to naturalistic character movements and historical settings.

Nevertheless, within that framework, Bakshi is able to produce some truly memorable moments of stylization. Most often, this happens during montages set to period-appropriate popular music. Much of the last ten minutes of American Pop is dedicated to three musical passages that tell the story of our final protagonist, Peter, and his ascent from homeless pusher man to stadium rock god. But perhaps by beginning at the end, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For the first part of the film represents one of the most fascinating stylistic choices Bakshi uses in this bricolage of a movie.

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American Pop begins with a scene of a pogrom in a Russian Jewish village pretend as a silent film. All dialogue appears on parchment-and-ink titles and the film is dimmed and desaturated. Our young first  protagonist, Zalmie Belinsky, escapes to New York with his mother, immersing themselves into the tangled world of early 1900s America. The film handles this idea elegantly:

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A set of still photographs rapidly shifts in the centre of an expanding city.

The transitions here communicate the central concept of the film: for Jewish immigrants––and minority cultures in general––being successful in the United States was often antithetical to living according to inherited traditions. Over the course of American Pop, each successive protagonist becomes more and more distant from their Jewish roots, their lives and ideals progressively assimilating to those of the American “normal.”

Each of the different protagonists in the movie corresponds not only to a specific historical time and generation but also to a popular music/entertainment style. For Zalmie, it’s vaudeville and stage comedy. His son, Benny, is a jazz pianist, and the grandson, Tony, becomes a songwriter for a 60s rock band. Finally, his son, Peter, as mentioned, becomes a rock star and drug pusher for the punk scene.

Critically, each generational transition is punctuated by a major historical event that parallels a moment of personal transition. Every generation throws off some or other aspect of their parents’ legacy. Zalmie forgoes his religious education to work the music halls and theatres. Benny, who is friendly with his father but quietly ashamed of his family’s connections to the Mafia, rejects that legacy and enlists in battle in WWII to win redemption. Tony abandons his family to to pursue the life of a Beat poet and, later, a hippie, fleeing to California to escape his suburban confines. Finally, Peter, who has to care for his then drug-addicted father more than vice-versa, sloughs off all ideals and  becomes a hard-driven individualist with no family or personal ties. By this time, Peter has lost all traces of any Jewish identity, sporting all-American blonde hair and blue eyes. Though he does dig the beat of a Jewish prayer in one of the most powerful moments in the film.

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This moment brings everything brilliantly full circle, showing us both that resisting assimilation was possible and marking just how far the Belinsky family has gone during its time in America.

The reason why I would name this the most purely enjoyable of Bakshi’s movies is that its story is ultimately the clearest and most coherent––not to mention thematically sound––of his body of work. Plot events come quickly and character deaths are often treated abruptly, but the film never fails to orient the audience and establish clear motivations and arc for the protagonists. And it manages to pass the torch from male sire to male sire with minimal disruption. To sum it up, the movie smooths out the usual Bakshi rough edges for the most part. It’s certainly not as enthusiastic or joyous as Heavy Traffic and Coonskin in their best moments, but it’s far easier to stick with it through the entire running time.

Another reason I’ve mentioned for American Pop’s success is Bakshi’s mastery of the details of each pop culture period examined. The soundtrack is astounding and used appropriately, whether to juxtapose the wild party life of 1940s America with life on the European front lines or to simply frame a train ride through the mountains. Of course, the songs also provide for some of the most expressionistic and wild imagery Bakshi has to offer. Much of it is presented through mixed media––stock footage, painted backdrops, slideshows of old photographs (pulled off much more dynamically than in the somnambulant Ken Burns movies). There’s even a scene that uses early computer graphics to accentuate the more intense visual spectacle of early 80s music. Screenshot 2016-04-20 23.28.14.png

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Here Bakshi even capture then-new dance scenes that were erupting in New York.

Even better, though Bakshi––and the script he’s working with––clearly have the most affection for the counterculture of the 60s and 70s since it was their own time––their treatment of other eras and styles is neither condescending nor rose-tinted. The movie might have a critical view of American liberal individualism and a clear eye for how drugs could have a devastating impact on people’s lives, it tries to show us each cultural moment or trend in its own context. We come to understand why this new style, this new piece of clothing, this attitude, is attractive to each of the protagonists and their friends. Characterization isn’t brilliant across the board––once again, women tend to be flat where the plot seems to want more rounded and complex characters––but the fusion of personal narrative, historical context, and flashy pop flare is pulled off uniquely well on the whole.

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And, on a technical level, American Pop is, with Lord of the Rings, the film that best uses rotoscoping for its overall goals. Reproducing dance steps, rock posturing, and expressive movements with uncanny closeness allows Bakshi to ground his flights of fancy and mixed media in a recognizable world. It’s much closer to moving illustration than classical American cartooning, and only a few scenes (particularly one in a cornfield) feature awkward or unnatural blocking that can look a bit too stagey. If you feel like you have an innate dislike of rotoscoping, this would be the film I would recommend to break that resistance. I hate the idea that movies have to justify being animated if they don’t have fantasy or science fiction worlds to depict and aren’t comedies, and American Pop is a great counter-example.

As an exercise in large-scale storytelling and episodic structure with a strong overarching theme, Pop is a wonderful synthesis of on-point writing and a director willing to push the boundaries of visual storytelling through mixed media and animation. I find it endlessly rewatchable, especially the last fifteen minutes or so, and it has some of the best characters Bakshi ever put on screen. I cannot recommend it enough and would probably say it’s one of Bakshi’s most popularly accessible works. It’s a work born out of love for American pop traditions, and a fine piece of pop art in its own right.

P.S.

American Pop also served as inspiration for the Hype Williams music video for Kanye West’s “Heartless.” In particular, the scene ofKanye in the car is taken directly from a scene of Tony Belinsky writing lyrics on a city bus in San Francisco. It’s a good video and homage. It also happens to pay homage to the vision of gender relations from the Bakshi original, so plus and minus points for that.

Alain Badiou: Theory of the Subject

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Standing Before the Door, A Structural Marxist:

When there’s a fire in the building, you have to be wary of doors. Grab hold of the wrong doorknob and you might earn a searing memento of your own foolishness. If we imagine that Theory of the Subject is one door among many in a telescoped hallway, we have to assume that trying to open the door will get us burned, at least a little. In Bruno Bosteel’s introduction to the English translation, he cites a number of authors who call this the most forbidding of the French philosopher’s three big books (Being and Event and its sequel Logics of Worlds being its younger siblings), a confounding volume that rifles through Symbolist poetry, psychoanalysis, Greek tragedy, and youth insurgencies looking for pieces of a renewed, well, theory of the subject.

Fortunately, I didn’t read the introduction until I had already finished the book. “Fools rush in,” and all that. You could criticize me for having a cavalier attitude towards Badiou, and I would confess that I’ve never taken him all that seriously as either a historian or a political subject. I have appreciated his fierce polemics against puppets of the French status quo and devoured his recent Ethics, which I reviewed previously. All the same, I was in no hurry to read his major works, mainly because I was passingly aware of their forbidding austerity and highly technical mathematical constructions. I hate reading Derrida, but at least the author seems to have fun conjuring up those tentacular sentences.

But after devouring both volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia I wanted to engage with one of Deleuze’s most famous sparring partners. So I opened the door of Theory of the Subject heedless of whatever difficulties might lie in my way.

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Page 17. My favourite chart of the many in the book.

 

Long-time readers might be aware that I have an affinity for Althusser and structural Marxism. In fact, I spent a great deal of time defending his legacy and using his theory as a framework for my historical investigations in undergrad. I’ve read and re-read all of his canonical essays and marked up my copy of On the Reproduction of Capitalism almost beyond readability. I’ve found his work, and that of Nicos Poulantzas, of great utility in developing my own theories of how to write Marxist history. Of course, the central attraction of the Althusserian approach is its conception of Marxism as a science of history (hold that thought for awhile) that can analyze modes of production and their development with uncanny precision. It’s a wonderful tool for understanding a given situation and placing its elements in their proper locations.

And so you can see my particular line of approach in reading Badiou, the set of questions I brought to my first reading of Theory of the Subject:

  1. What is its relationship to Deleuze and Guattari and their own views on subjectivity and structure?
  2. What does Badiou do with Althusser and the structural approach? Given that he’s a former student of Monsieur A., I have to assume that’s going to be on this book’s mind.
  3. What’s in it for me? As a historian? As a Marxist?

Because these are the questions I brought to the text, my most coherent impressions of Theory of the Subject concern these three topics. Before continuing with the review proper, I should mention the limitations of my reading:

I have no background in either Symbolist poetry or Lacan, and only a cursory knowledge of Greek tragedy. I know my Marxism quite well, particularly the Big Three and Althusser, but I am not trained as a philosopher nor in mathematics so my grasp of these threads is relatively tenuous.

Now let’s walk through the door!

Philosophy as Polemic:

First, Badiou embraces the conception of philosophy that Althusser (after Lenin) established in his own work. That is, every position a philosopher takes is both an affirmation and the act of drawing a line against an opposing line. Philosophy is a theoretical struggle that has its own separate arena, and its purpose is to defend scientific thought against incursions and ideological impurities. It reminds one of Machiavelli. For the Althusser of For Marx, the vital campaign is to defend the materialist dialectic against humanism and Hegel, to draw a firm line between Marx and Hegel in an effort to critique Stalin-esque politics from the Left. In Theory of the Subject, Badiou draws many lines––sometimes literally!––to distinguish the true political essence of Marxism from deviations.

His method for doing so is to do a number of philosophical readings to establish the nature of dialectics and the place of the subject as a radical break with what he calls the space of placement or “splace,” the rare emergence of the truly new within a structured reality. He reads Hegel, the poet Mallarmé, Lacan, and so on in the context of the aftermath of May, 1968. The result is a formulation of Marxism that rejects Althusser’s idea of history as a “process without a subject” (for if there is no subject how can revolutionary change take place?) as well as the conception of Marxism as a “science of history.”

“‘Science of history?’ Marxism is the discourse with which the proletariat sustains itself as subject. We must never let go of this idea.”¹

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Marxism is therefore a guide to action, and the subject that it guides is the revolutionary party of a new type that anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninism sought to build. And the account of its subjectivity, of the process by which this subject comes into being, is largely derived from a run-in with Lacan. Indeed, Badiou calls Lacan “our Hegel,” and argues that Marxism has to reckon with and purify Lacan of idealism in order to properly conceive of a revolutionary subject. This subject is not simply found readymade, but it does include elements that cannot simply be mapped and understood in advance. Overall, Badiou’s account of the subject endorses a certain voluntarism, a belief in the primacy of the political line and of subjective struggle against revisionism and for a new rupture.

“The party is the support of the complete subject, by which the proletariat, built on the working class, aims at the dissolution of the algebraic frame in which this class is placed…In the proletariat, the working class has disappeared.”²

Thus Badiou rearticulates the Marxist split between “class in itself” and “class for itself,” favouring the latter and consigning the academic uses for the term “class” to a second-rate prop. His method of historical periodization, likewise, is punctuated not by concepts like modes of production or social formations but by revolutionary ruptures. 1871. 1917. 1967-8. And though the professional historian in me complains about the inadequacy of such categories for sober analysis, I love that Badiou is linking his philosophical project so closely with the history and practice of militant politics. It certainly ameliorates my bewilderment at his lengthy readings of Lacan, and gave me a vantage point for understanding his aims that I would have otherwise lacked.

“Like Hegel for Marx, Lacan for us is essential and divisible. The primacy of the structure, which makes of the symbolic the general algebra of the subject … is countered ever more clearly with a topological obsession in which what moves and progresses pertains to the primacy of the real.”³

These political passages, along with his elaboration of an ethics of courage and persistence and against the anxious paranoia that can so easily beset revolutionaries, were my favourite bits, the points where I felt Badiou’s and my own interests coincided most.

Crumbs for the Academic Historians:

What Badiou does not have, unlike his teacher Althusser (and even Deleuze), is a bounty of tools for historians to pick up and work with. His emphases here are overwhelmingly on radical shifts and rare volcanic eruptions. It would be easy for a given historian (me for instance) to argue that history is instead composed largely of smooth and subtle shifts, little tectonic slips that happen because of structural contradictions. What need does history have for the subject? But while I certainly don’t reject, as Badiou does, the idea of Marxism as a science of history, I do think that historians can utilize his notion of rupturing subjects.

In my own work, for instance, I can look at the creation of the Chinese middle class “in itself,” in other words its objective placement within the structure of Chinese and global society and the conditions of its emergence. But, on the other hand, we have to have a notion of subjectivity or agency if we want to explain how this middle layer’s political consciousness is expressed and why it gravitates to certain forms of political action and organization. Even though Badiou’s elaboration of these concepts is largely concerned with the proletariat and the M-L “party of a new type” the same energetic political subjects also appear out of other class formations, and I’ll certainly keep this in mind going forward with my work.

Conclusion:

Reading Theory of the Subject’s many seminar-format chapters left a wildly mixed impression. I have been befuddled, inspired, irritated, and bored in equal measure. It’s been awhile since a book exposed my own intellectual limitations with such glee (Malabou was the last writer to do so). Hopefully I’ll be able to grow and re-read this book with a more mature outlook sometime in the future. In the meantime, I look forward with great anticipation to the next great world-historical rupture and the subject I’m sure to become.

P.S.

I couldn’t find a real space for a discussion of Badiou’s polemic with Deleuze, since it’s more of a peripheral concern in the book. My own position is that Badiou shares some of the same problems with Deleuze concerning more speculative elements in their philosophies. I also reject the way that Deleuze and Guattari use Nietzsche and the notion of debt to ground their reading of political economy. But if I’m asked where my heart leads me, I would say it prefers the path of Spinoza and the radical anti-Hegelian positions of D&G. Time will tell if that proves to be a sustainable position, but I’m excited by the possibilities that Deleuze opens up for, say, environmental history and ecological studies of humanity’s role in the world at this point.

Notes:

  1. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject (New York: Continuum, 2009), xix.
  2. Ibid, 238.
  3. Ibid, 133.

Site Recommendation: Radiooooo.com

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I’m not the biggest fan of the commercial genre of “world” music. Though I appreciate the work of people like David Byrne and many, many luminaries of British rock bringing music from the global peripheries to my attention, the fact is that it’s still selecting the most marketable and easily categorized music from a given country or––worse––continent and putting it up for sale to a hip crowd of Western consumers.

Still! I occasionally hanker for a 1970s Soviet cover of “So Happy Together” called “Vsegda Budem Vmeste.” Or maybe I feel a potato chip craving for the decadent yacht-pop of 1980s bubble-era Japan. Or, hell, 1970s East German funk rock. Radiooooo is a music streaming service that represents a seemingly infinite well of hilarity and genuine discovery. You click on a decade tab at the bottom, pick a country on the attractively old-school map, and let the site bring you to audio heaven. You can also adjust the mood to make it “slow,” “fast,” or (the only really valid option) “weird.” I’ve already spent a few hours browsing around and am impressed with both the interface and the selection of songs––there’s much more kitschy pop from 1960s China than one would expect! If you feel charitable or especially impressed, you can even buy the song straight from the site, though I have not yet been so moved.

Most importantly, the interface gives you a relatively decent map projection of the world to click around in, which means you’re just as likely to venture way out and find something unexpected as to stay on familiar shores. You can get at least a vague idea of global trends in (mainly) popular styles of music, which is attractive to an eclectic discovery-oriented listener like me. If you’re looking for something a bit quirkier and more specific than Pandora or Spotify or feel like your musical tastes are stuck in a box, Radiooooo might be the site to set it free. At least you’ll have a few laughs at how much of the music from the “good old days” was absolute tripe.

Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 5: Lord of the Rings (1978)

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Up to this week, we’ve covered Bakshi’s most personal films. Fritz was an adaptation, sure, but it was based on material with which he was highly sympathetic and allowed him to produce a feature as a series of linked episodes. His original scripts––Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Wizards––all worked in an even more personal mode despite their varied subject matter. In hindsight we can see that Coonskin marked the end of Bakshi’s career as an in-demand artist in the mainstream industry––his Heaven’s Gate.

Wizards, meanwhile, was a transitional work in two ways. First, it marked Coonskin as the last of Bakshi’s street-level, episodic explorations of American urban life (with the caveat that Hey Good Lookin, our feature for two weeks from now, was in production before Wizards). Second, it functioned as a sort of audition or test for his ability to handle a fantasy property as mammoth as Lord of the Rings. It takes us from New Hollywood to the filmmaking world that prevailed after Star Wars. Fantasy and science fiction were in. This is the period that gave us the operatic travesty that was Flash Gordon, after all.

Given the last four films we’ve reviewed, it’s striking how completely Bakshi disappears into his adaptation. Though his Rings has the unenviable task of compressing two volumes of a gigantic historical fantasy epic into a two-hour running time––lengthy for an animated movie but far short of Jacksonian––Peter S. Beagle’s script cuts only when necessary and almost exclusively uses Tolkien’s dialogue. His approach to the material is thus both pragmatic and reverent: cut when you have to, but keep the spirit and tone of the book intact. It’s as far from Coonskin as you can get. Hell, The Last Unicorn is more countercultural. Those looking for Bakshi to subvert Tolkien’s barely concealed reactionary ideology or his antiquarian idealization of Old Anglo-Saxon England will be disappointed.

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Animators handle heavily populated scenes with aplomb.

Of course, Lord of the Rings was not quite mainstream at the time, though it was a canonical text in mainstream fantasy, the venerated Primordial Source of a thousand hack knockoffs. And despite the author’s own antipathy for scruffy hippies, the latter embraced Rings as their own, interpreting it as an allegory about The Bomb or the onset of technological dictatorships in the twentieth century. It’s easy to see how wispy commune types would enjoy fantasizing about a Shire populated by hairy-footed pipe smokers. So it’s not difficult to understand why Bakshi ended up loving the book as well, given that Wizards is a magic-vs-technology story much in the same vein as Tolkien’s body of work. Bakshi the iconoclastic writer is nowhere to be found here.

We can’t, however, say that the film is anonymous. While giving himself over to Tolkien in the script and concept, Bakshi makes himself known on the aesthetic level. Given a restricted budget of under $10 million and the prospect of staging scenes of huge armies massing and clashing and a large ensemble cast travelling through varied locations, it’s no surprise that he employs rotoscoping here. Lord of the Rings has become perhaps the most famous example of rotoscoping in feature film history, and the team of animators do a wonderful job with the technique. The opening scene (after a short prologue) at Bilbo’s birthday/going away party features a huge number of animated characters on screen, all with unique faces and costumes. Later scenes, including Saruman rallying his troops at Isengard and the Battle of Helm’s Deep, feature hundreds of rotoscoped figures in the frame, all in motion at once. These are triumphs of technique and resourcefulness, and are absolutely necessary to making an animated Rings work at all.

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Nazgûl rendered as almost pure black against a lightning bolt background.

This sense of scale is combined with a well-wrought illustration style of animation to replicate the grandeur of the original book. Characters aren’t rendered as cartoons but as relatively realistic human figures, simplified but animated in minute detail by tracing over live action footage. In motion, the technique isn’t quite seamless but it provides both a measure of dramatic realism and a spontaneity that sells the key scenes. Granted, when you pause the video you can always find an awkward in-between frame with a character making a funny face, but the same is true of more traditional animation as well. Rings’ humans have nothing in common with the ragged drawings in Heavy Traffic or the weapons-grade caricatures in Coonskin, and while it certainly looks “of its time” the style has aged well. Part of the reason for that is the fine work put into the backgrounds, which take cues from old book illustrations. The atmosphere is just the right mixture of dark and childlike, with looming Isengard and bleak Moria alternating with the rustic or mystical aesthetic of The Shire and Lothlórien.

What makes Rings especially identifiable as a Bakshi film is its collage effects. While they’re kept to a relative minimum in the movie, they’re evident in his decision to use different styles of rotoscoping for the evil and good armies. Orcs and, most of the time, the Nazgûl, are rendered in a style closer to the original live action footage, often simply existing as fields of black in twisted shapes. This aligns with Tolkien’s intention to completely “other” the orcs, with all of the racial and imperial implications that attend this. Bakshi never wastes an opportunity to liven up a scene: Isengard is hyper-saturated in red when Gandalf approaches it, and the scene atop Weathertop when Frodo puts on the ring has an eerie green background and off-kilter style to it. To be sure, the focus is on the more realistic and even naïve style that befits an adaptation of Tolkien, but there is enough Bakshi madness here to establish a continuity with his other work.

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Unfortunately, the film ends long before its story is complete. No sequel was ever produced––and the Rankin Bass Return of the King does not count––which means we are left with a fragment rather than a whole. Despite some of the kinks that are visible in the direction and the animation––a notable example is Gandalf’s wild gesticulating when he’s telling Frodo about the One Ring––the film is for the most part an effective if rather obvious adaptation of Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t suffer from any major structural flaws not inherent in the source material, and it manages to pull off exciting action scenes with some unconventional techniques. It also has John Hurt’s perfect performance as Aragorn, the highlight of a generally impressive cast. And while epic fantasy and large-scale battles became a grinding cliché after Jackson’s Rings, this film (which was quite successful at the box office), was part of the end of the New Hollywood and the turn towards franchising and corporatized studio filmmaking we’re still living through today.

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The obligatory screencap from this film. You’re welcome.

In the final calculation, I can’t say that I’m all too inspired by a faithful adaptation of Tolkien. It’s far from a favourite of mine, but it’s an entertaining and well-constructed film that keeps the pace up and manages to make some technical breakthroughs along the way. Genuinely daring for its time, it’s far from the laughingstock it’s sometimes made out to be in our post-Jackson world. In fact, it’s probably Bakshi’s most conventionally entertaining movie, with the possible exception of next week’s. And sometimes we need a little unadulterated nostalgia and romanticism to leaven our bleak cynicism.

Book Review List for April-May

When I decided that I would post a book review every Sunday, I failed to grasp that that meant reading and finishing a whole book every seven days. To be honest, I wanted to do a short review of Badiou’s Theory of the Subject today, but I was unable to finish it in time. That review will go up next week, after another Bakshi retrospective and commentary post. Now that I’ve picked my ragged self off the floor and gotten used to the idea of weekly reviews, I wanted to publish a short preview of the books I’ll be reading and reviewing in the next several weeks. A-like-so.

April 17: Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject. A dense philosophical tome I’m reading to counterpoint the Deleuze and Guattari I’ve been reading for the last couple of months. I’m within sight of the end of the book, but will not have a real review until next week.

April 24: Minqi Li’s The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy. I initially gravitated to this book because it has a class analysis of the PRC, which will be useful in my historical and academic work. But it also looks to be a worthwhile interrogation of China’s effect on the international capitalist system as a whole. Come to think of it, the latter point is also useful when applied to its relations with Japan. Huh.

May 1: Hisila Yami’s People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal. After I did a fair-sized study of the Peruvian Communist Party and the evolution of the Western historiography of it, I was interested in inside perspectives on other people’s wars being waged by Maoist parties. Nepal presents the most fascinating case, and luckily there is an English version of this book available.

May 8: Gavan McCormack’s The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence. Written in the mid-1990s, this book describes a Japan with all the puff and arrogance drained out of it. Vulnerable to earthquakes, trapped in economic decline, and beset with unresolved historical and political issues, the country was both affluent and, yes, empty. I’ve been putting this one off for some time, but I’m out of excuses.

May 15: Japan at Nature’s Edge. I’ve been tackling a couple of individual essays from the book, which I hope to do a couple more times before this review. But I also want to review the book as a whole as well as its contributions to a more general environmental historiography and my own research.

May 22: Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority. I read the first of this purportedly great trilogy of sci-fi novels last year, but haven’t dug into the sequels yet because of my tendency to push fiction onto the back burner and just watch movies or read comics for fun.

May 29: Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s Re-Inventing Japan. I’m not sure what to expect from this one. Like the McCormack book––which came from the same publisher––it covers a range of thematic topics that present certain political and historical problems for the Japanese state and its people. Should be a productive read, but it’s hard to tell this far out.

Well, I had better disconnect the wi-fi if I want to keep pace with this schedule! Happy reading everyone.

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