¡Vampiros en La Habana! (1985)

Director: Juan Padrón
English Title: Vampires in Havana

Vampires in Havana is an animated film released in Cuba in the mid 1980s. The film is about a vampire (related to Count Dracula himself) who invented a potion that can allow vampires to walk around in the daytime. It takes place in Havana, Cuba in the environment of a growing rebel movement against the dictator “General Machado” (who clearly represents Batista in the film). The main character is part of this revolutionary movement when he later discovers that he is a vampire, and then becomes caught up in a struggle between Chicago “Mobster vampires” and wealthy European vampires.

European Vampire

The plot beings to focus on the formula and the battle to get the formula by the different vampire sects. Von Dracula in the film wanted the formula to be given for free to the world, while the Chicago “mobsters” wanted it destroyed (because it would harm their real estate plans) and the Europeans wanted to make a profit. The idea of giving it to the world for free could be seen as an analogy for how medicine ought to be from a Cuban perspective in this film: instead of major companies trying to make a profit off of drugs that people need, health should be socialized. And in this film, those who want to make that profit are essentially portrayed as mob bosses. (Granted that portrayal is just as much a commentary on pre-revolutionary Cuba, but the analogy to medicine should be seen as a valid one as well).

The end of the film reveals that the main character (the son of the nephew of Dracula) does not even like blood.  Thus after a lifetime of using the formula, he essentially ceases to be a vampire or at least a long time of taking that formula makes him significantly less of a vampire.  Karl Marx often compared capitalists to vampires, and it’s certainly possible that the write of this film was also trying to make a statement that linked vampires to a regressive force in society.  Whether the writer intended that or not, the film does have certain messages that are not seen in the average animated film in a country like the United States.

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Documentary a Day: Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986)

Director: Anne Lewis

This short (around half an hour) documentary is about a strike by West Virginian coal miners that got violent in the early 1980s.  It should be of interest today as some of the main players of the strike continue to make national news headlines: Richard Trumpka, who is now the president of the AFL-CIO, and Don Blankenship, Massey Energy CEO who got national headlines when a mine operated by Massey exploded a few years ago, killing many workers inside.  Massey Energy also engages in a lot of “mountain top removal” which has become quite a contentious issue in West Virginia, for workers, environmentalists and the coal industry.

This documentary accounts for a strike that got violent and was a very important event for the union movement of West Virginia (the unions have consistently been busted since).  Interviews with striking workers, and scabs that were brought in either from other states or interestingly were local police before the strike, are contrasted throughout the film.  The class consciousness of the striking workers is quite high, the violent history of West Virginia’s labor disputes remains an important lesson for them throughout these interviews.  It’s also interesting to note that a high level of solidarity with South African workers is kept with the striking workers who are well aware that Massey is exploiting workers on an international scale and that solidarity is important if they wanted to have a fighting chance.

Another interesting part of the documentary are the interviews with Don Blankenship and the scab workers.  Blankenship makes similar arguments as a boss of a profit-making corporation that the fictional boss in Godard’s Tout Va Bien makes to not only justify his company’s position against the workers, but to defend capitalism itself.  The scabbing workers often either are visibly uncomfortable about the backlash by the community and striking workers and are very open about the fact that they regret what they’re doing, or their excuses rest on relatively empty notions of “freedom” and the “right to work.”

This short film demonstrates the aspect of coal mining that is all too often left out of the current debate on moutain top removal, and reminds me of a Monthly Review article titled “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism” that links these two important subjects.

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety here: http://appalshop.org/film/minewar/stream.html

Links of interest:

Monthly Review Article – on strikes in West Virginia which includes the one this documentary is about

Ambush at Keystone – An account by Maoist Mike Ely about his invovlement in a wildcat strike in West Virginia in the 1970s

Matewan – A late 1980s film about earlier labor disputes in West Virginia.

The American Ruling Class (2007)

Director John Kirby

“All ruling classes are based on merit”

The American Ruling Class is a film that describes itself as a “dramatic-documentary-musical.” It mixes a fictional narrative form with a traditional documentary: with two amateur actors playing the lead roles interviewing (or rather interacting with) various important figures in American society while being guided by Lewis Lapham throughout the film.

"Old Money"

The project of the film is rather straightforward, it asks a series of questions:  Is there an American ruling class?  If so, who is it comprised of?  and How does one join it?

It goes through these answers by having the two fiction characters, both recent graduates form Yale (one an aspiring business man who wants to work on Wall St. and the other an aspiring writer), meet various real life American figures.

The film oscillates from meetings with the business elite, to Democratic Socialist figures like Barbra Ehrenreich and “Reds” like Peter Seeger.  The characters are taken through various segments of American society, for example the sequence with Ehrenreich demonstrates how the working class is much more philanthropic than any wealthy businessman by what they provide to the ruling class and the amount they receive for their services (hint: not much).

My main problem with the film is that it takes the ruling class as more of a cultural phenomenon than an economic one to some extent.  The film constantly revisits the theme of “money rules everything” but doesn’t really do it from a very economic standpoint.  It’s all cultural to the writer of the film to some extent.  And while figures like Howard Zinn and Ehrenreich are featured in the film, they too (And perhaps as a result of the direction that the film wanted to go) focus on the “power of the elite via their desire to control” but not so much how the elite exist as a ruling class, and what that means.

The film also ends with a vague optimism about changing the world without prescribing any sort of way to do it.  While it does seem to be critical of the “change the system within” and the ending song even speaks of the “falling empire,” a real class analysis of how to change society is suspiciously absent here.  Now many Marxists would be accused of just projection too often their desire to see more class analysis in film and documentaries, especially when so much of it has been ignored even amongst the left today.  But in a film about the “American Ruling class” such a prescription of a more vibrant and militant labor movement seems to be the obvious conclusion here, but it doesn’t seem to be taken too seriously (other than a rather vague reference by Ehrenreich to “people will eventually demand better pay and change will come from that” in the middle of the film).

For the most part, from a Marxist stand point at least: the class analysis of the film is lacking quite a bit, yet it provides an interesting insider perspective on the American ruling class (often from the ruling class itself) and is certainly worth the time.  There are some awkward moments with the fictional characters, and the musical scenes aren’t really that good (although that could be a personal preference).  It critically examines the concept of the “American Dream” with the conclusion that the dream is a farce, but this could have been done in a more through way in terms of an actual class analysis. The cultural aspects of the ruling class are interesting, and just as interesting are the views of those who the film considers to be a part of that class. The answers to the questions the film sets out aren’t quite the clearest answers but the investigation the film goes into is pretty valuable nonetheless.

At the time of this writing the film can be viewed on Hulu