Espoir: Sierra de Teruel

From the Encyclopédie Larousse:

Espoir est le seul film de l’écrivain André Malraux, par ailleurs auteur d’un roman intitulé l’Espoir, consacré au même thème.

Montré clandestinement en 1939, ce pamphlet sobre et lyrique n’est sorti qu’à la Libération, précédé d’un commentaire de Maurice Schumann. Plus que d’une œuvre de pure propagande, il s’agit de l’une des premières tentatives françaises (réussie) de cinéma-vérité. Auteur complet de son film, qu’il a écrit, dialogué, réalisé et même monté, Malraux use des images et des sons de la même manière qu’il se servait des mots dans la Condition humaine. Pour lui, le contexte socio-politique est un personnage à part entière. Il prend soin de décrire la guerre d’Espagne comme un catalyseur de passions vécues non pas par des individus isolés, mais plutôt par une communauté déchirée dans sa chair. En ce sens, il annonce le reportage tel qu’il s’est développé à l’occasion de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l’instigation de photographes comme Robert Capa, fondateur de l’agence Magnum en 1939. En outre, Malraux évite le piège dans lequel tombent souvent les écrivains cinéastes : les grands discours moralisateurs.

Espoir est une chronique dépouillée qui tend à ressembler le plus possible aux actualités cinématographiques de l’époque, sans en reprendre le ton sentencieux. Les faits sont là et les images se suffisent à elles-mêmes, l’une des qualités primordiales de cette œuvre étant l’habileté avec laquelle les documents pris sur le vif sont intégrés aux scènes de fiction pure. La distribution composée d’inconnus renforce encore cet aspect et confère aux différentes anecdotes une authenticité qui sait ne jamais tricher avec la vérité des sentiments.

Cette osmose est sans doute due à la dérive d’un projet qui ne devait constituer initialement qu’un post-scriptum au roman écrit en 1937. Les deux œuvres n’ont d’ailleurs finalement que très peu de points communs, sinon cette passion de la liberté qui allait conduire l’auteur dans les rangs de la Résistance.

See also the film’s IMDB page.

Advertisements

Che

Che poster

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is far from being a conventional biopic. There is, for instance, little to no back-story: no sequences of a young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, for instance; no narrative of his politicization; no details of his home life, his wife and family. It’s not as though there is not space enough to flesh out these aspects of Che’s life: taken together, the two films that constitute Soderbergh’s epic make up four and a half hours of screen time. But they focus rigorously on two military campaigns: the (successful) Cuban revolution of 1956 to 1959; and the (disastrous) Bolivian campaign of 1966 to 1967, at the end of which Che was captured and summarily executed. Moreover, in telling the tale of these two episodes, though the spotlight is always on Che, there is hardly anything in the way of introspection or interior monologue. We almost always see our hero from without, and he is consistently aloof and distant. One of the most famous images of the twentieth-century remains resistant to the gaze. Or as the New York Times put it, “the film is [. . .] in a very precise and unusual sense, an action movie. I don’t just mean that it is heavy on battles and gunfights, but rather that action–what people do, as opposed to why they do it–is its primary, indeed obsessive concern.” This is, then, less the story of a life than the sketch of a man in movement, a body in motion amid the chaotic interactions, the complex struggles that (may) lead to widespread social change.

Yet even the depiction of these struggles is curtailed: the first film, which deals with Cuba, stops while Che is still (we are told) 186 miles short of Havana. The triumphant arrival in the capital is eliminated. This despite the fact that, shortly beforehand, we see Che respond to a fellow fighter who asks if, the revolution now won, he can go home to his family. “No,” Che replies. “We only won the war. The Revolution begins now.” As such, then, what the movie presents is not so much the revolution itself as the pre-requisites for revolution. Almost everything else is methodically stripped away, in favour of a strangely unemotional examination of the ways that a revolutionary movement either expands and increases its power and its resonance (in the Cuban case) or contracts and dissipates (in the Bolivian example). Che is the nucleus of these films, but in the sense that his own theory of insurrection understood the role of the guerrilla foco: that what matters is what accretes around it, its capacity to affect its surrounding milieu, rather than any essence that it may have of its own accord.

The second half of the movie (its second part: Che: Part Two or Guerrilla) is more meticulous in its commitment to this principle, and to presenting us its action consistently and solely “in the present tense” (as Roger Ebert observes). Here, the linear chronology of its source, Che’s Bolivian Diary, is respected, and what’s more there are relatively few cutaways to what is happening beyond the (ever-diminishing) sphere of action of Che’s own guerrilla band. The first half (Che: Part One or The Argentine) oscillates between the guerrilla campaign itself and two later brief episodes in Che’s life, both set in 1964 (and both shot in grainy black and white): a visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly, and an interview in Havana with US journalist Lisa Howard. As such, this part of the film–again, perhaps in sympathy with its source, Che’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War–allows itself the luxury of, if not introspection, then at least a measure of retrospection. Even in Manhattan, though, Che remains very much the guerrilla commander. Not simply sartorially, in his beret and fatigues surrounded by men in suits and ties, but also in his relations both with his own entourage and with the US high society, UN dignitaries, or the crowds, whether hostile or supportive, that follow him wherever he goes. Throughout, he is unperturbed and unflappable, unhesitatingly direct, and at most ironically amused by the fuss he consistently occasions.

In short, Soderbergh’s film bucks Hollywood conventions most significantly in its determination to present affect shorn of emotion. This is a movie that refuses triumph (in part one) and tragedy (in part two) alike. We never particularly warm to Che, but nor does he inspire (say) fear or disgust. This is the portrait of an individual, but not of a subject with whom we might empathize or identity. Here, affect is always a matter of the correlation of forces, the concatenation and interaction of bodies in motion. Even in the climactic scene at the end of the second part, which gives us perhaps the only point-of-view shot in the entire four and a half hours, extraordinarily from the viewpoint of Che as he dies on the floor of a Bolivian shack, we feel, I think, that this is a thoroughly impersonal death. It’s as though it served to disprove Che’s (alleged) last words, his claim to transcend the individual body: “Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man.” For in fact those bullets did indeed put an end to a Revolution. Which is not to say that another could not arise elsewhere, some other time, around some other nucleus or foco.

Viva Zapata!

Viva Zapata! poster

Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! tells us that the fundamental conflict at the heart of the Mexican Revolution concerns land. Indeed, “land and liberty” (tierra y libertad) has been the banner under which has historically erupted, in Mexico as in many other agrarian societies. But this is a conflict also between the countryside and the city, and between different temporalities. The film opens with a delegation of peasants, from the southern state of Morelos, disarming themselves as they enter the national palace in Mexico City to petition President Porfirio Díaz over a land dispute. By giving up their machetes they are also handing over their instruments of labour, but in any case they are already unable to work as the local landowners have used barbed wire to fence off the fields where they have historically harvested their crops. Díaz, paternalistically addressing them as his “children,” tries to fob them off by telling them to be patient, to verify their boundaries and settle things through the courts. “Believe me, these matters take time,” he tells them. All but one of the group is pacified by the president’s vague reassurances. “We make our tortillas our of corn, not patience,” he declares. “What is your name?” asks Díaz, riled up. “Emiliano Zapata,” comes the answer. Díaz circles the name on a piece of paper in front of him, and we have all the clues we need for the rest of the movie: Zapata is different, a man to watch, who will not bow down to authority.

Much later comes a scene in which the roles are reversed. We are in the same office, but Díaz has been overthrown and now it is Zapata who is, temporarily at least, in the position of the president, receiving petitions. In comes another delegation of men from Morelos, seeking to resolve a problem with their land. The complaint is against Zapata’s brother, who has taken over a hacienda whose lands had been redistributed. Now it is Zapata’s turn to prevaricate: “When I have time, I’ll look into it.” Again, however, there’s one man among the petitioning group who won’t put up with such delays: “These men haven’t got time,” he calls out. “The land can’t wait [. . .] and stomachs can’t wait either.” To which now it is Zapata who bellows: “What’s your name?” But on turning to a list similar to Díaz’s, about to circle the offending man’s name, he realizes the situation in which he has found himself, repeating the sins of the past. So Zapata, the true revolutionary, tears up the paper and angrily reclaims his gun and ammunition belt, to head back to Morelos with the men and sort out the problem straightaway.

Revolutions tend to repeat, the film suggests, but something always escapes. Towards the very end of the movie, as we suspect that Zapata is doomed, about to be swallowed up by the very revolution that he helped to start, Zapata’s wife, Josefa, asks him: “After all the fighting and the death, what has really changed?” To which Zapata responds: “They’ve changed. That’s how things really change: slowly, through people. They don’t need me any more.” “They have to be led,” Josefa says. “Yes, but by each other,” her husband replies. “A strong man makes a week people. Strong people don’t need a strong man.” This, however, is the basic tension around which the film revolves: it wants both to glorify (even romanticize) Zapata, and yet also to suggest that it’s the glorification of men like him that leads the revolution to fail. Indeed, Zapata is paradoxically glorified precisely in so far as he consistently refuses adulation. And so ultimately Zapata has to die, shot down in a hail of bullets, so that something of his spirit escapes, here (rather clumsily) portrayed through his white horse which is scene, as the closing credits roll, wild and free on a rocky crag.

Meanwhile, the more basic contradiction that this movie has to negotiate is that it sets out simultaneously to praise and to damn the very idea of revolution. The people’s cause is portrayed and eminently just, and it is clear that the normal political channels of protest or redress are blocked. What’s more, the film lauds Zapata’s instinct for direct action, his taking sides with the temporality of immediacy and against the endless procrastination imposed by bureaucracies of every stripe. (Surely something of this position-taking has to do with the medium itself: Hollywood always prefers men of action to bureaucrats, however much it is run by the latter rather than the former.) But we are not to take the obvious lessons from this portrayal. This movie was, after all, made at the height of the McCarthyite era, indeed in the same year that director Kazan himself would testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee–and, to lasting controversy, would sell out a number of actors and artists who he reported were (like him) former members of the Communist Party. Viva Zapata! had to be, as Kazan himself testified to the Committee, an “anti-Communist Picture.”

So we see how revolutions soon become morality plays, in which what is at stake is less their immediate impact than the lessons that others should or should not draw from them. Interpreting or representing the revolution soon becomes the site of a struggle that threatens to obscure the battles that the revolutionaries themselves fought. And sometimes the most effective counter-revolutionary narratives are the ones that claim to present the revolutionary cause with the most sympathy. Is it any wonder that John McCain, the former Republican candidate for the US Presidency, should tell us that Viva Zapata! is his favourite film? Or perhaps the point is that even the most counter-revolutionary representation has to acknowledge the attraction of armed revolt in the first place.

replacement

Steve Stekeley’s 1948 Noir The Scar (also known as Hollow Triumph) is perhaps most notable because its leading man is Paul Henreid, who six years earlier had played the part of Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. Beyond that, The Scar is at first sight an eminently ephemeral movie, easily forgettable. But it’s interesting in so far as it problematizes the very process of memory and recognition.

Henreid’s character in Casablanca is a Czech resistance hero who is strangely both the center of the plot and utterly marginal. For though the film ostensibly revolves around Laszlo’s efforts to flee the Nazis and seek asylum in America, what we remember is the tension and romance between Ingrid Bergman (playing Laszlo’s wife) and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, the bar-owner who has the letters of transit that would make Lazslo’s escape possible.

Similarly, in The Scar, Henreid again plays a character who fades from view… the difference being that in this film Henreid also plays the character who replaces him. Moreover, this is a film about the replacement itself, and the effect that it has (or, oddly enough, doesn’t have) on the audience.

Read more at Projections.

ohm

Radio On poster

Radio On is a chilling portrait of Britain in the late 1970s. As with David Peace‘s more recent novelistic portrayals of Yorkshire in the grip of Rippermania, Petit’s film suggests that violence and unsavory hidden networks underpin (but also undermine) the ennui and repetitive routines of an almost affectless daily life.

Unlike Peace, however, Petit has no great desire to prove the conspiratorial thesis that promises (as all conspiracies do) to give meaning to what is superficially odd or opaque. Rather, he prefers to surf the affectless surface itself, fascinated by the strange quirks and eddies that arise out of a life of constant (often mechanized) motion without particular end.

Hence, though the film’s plot involves a man named Robert who takes a road-trip to Bristol to find out why his brother has committed suicide, with the implication that he may have been involved in some kind of hard-core pornography ring recently busted by the police, in the end the protagonist seems hesitant to discern any kind of ultimate truth. As he comments to a German woman whom he picks up on the way, the reason for his journey turns out to be strangely unimportant.

The quirks and eddies of the trek include a brief episode with an apparently psychotic army deserter whom Robert picks up as a hitch-hiker. He’s been traumatized, it seems, by his tours of duty in Northern Ireland; but again Robert has little interest in probing much further, choosing instead to throw the man’s stuff out of the car and drive on when the ex-soldier stops to take a piss. Instead, Robert is rather more amused by the gentler figure of a petrol station attendant (played by Sting) who is too distracted by his rock and roll fantasies and idolization of Eddy Cochran to bother with manning the till or taking money from customers.

Together, Robert and Sting’s character sing a version of Cochran’s posthumous hit “Three Steps to Heaven”, which declares that “the formula for Heaven’s very simple / Just follow the rules and you will see.” There’s no greater indication of the distance between the early 1960s and the tail end of the 1970s than the fact that such simplicity, or even such aspirations, are totally out of place. But the link between then and now is that music remains central.

For this is a film almost entirely devoid of dialogue; and even when characters do converse, they speak past rather than to each other. For instance, there are a couple of long sequences of untranslated German; in Radio On, language is part of our alienation, not a means to counteract it. Music, on the other hand, while it may reflect the repetitiveness and routine of our humdrum lives (Bowie’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car”), perhaps also offers the possibility of connection and even heroic insistence on affect (Bowie again, with “Heroes/Helden,” or Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World”).

radio_on_still

Indeed, before Robert hears about the suicide, he gets a package in the post in which his brother has sent him three Kraftwerk tapes. So it is this German band, whose constant theme is our uneasy relationship to technology and mass production, that come to dominate the film’s soundtrack. The movie ends as Robert’s car fails to start, and he is unable to crank the engine as the vehicle is poised on the edge of a disused quarry. So he puts one last track on the car tape player, Kraftwerk’s ironic anthem “Ohm Sweet Ohm,” and takes the train back to London.

As the quasi-manifesto seen in the dead brother’s flat says, “We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. We are the link between the 20’s and the 80’s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers, and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.” Ultimately, Britain in the seventies is not quite “home,” and is by no means homely, but it may be that postindustrial (post)modernity gives rise to its own culture, and its own (electronic) reality in which we may find some uncertain facsimile of “ohm.”

YouTube Link: the film’s opening (almost entirely dialogue-free) ten minutes; the whole film can in fact be seen, in segments, on YouTube.

headless

Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s third film, La mujer sin cabeza, concerns a mysterious accident on a dusty road in the provinces.

Of course, the accident is only mysterious because the woman who causes it, the middle-class protagonist Verónica, allows it to be so. The quest that structures the bulk of the movie, and that turns around the question “Who or what did she hit?” really begs the more fundamental question of “Why did she run?”

We have seen, in the opening scenes, a trio of local kids playing with their dog in the road near a dried-up drainage ditch or canal. We then shift to a social event, full of inconsequential gossip that we strain to understand and contextualize, from which the bleached-blonde Verónica then heads home. As she is on the road, her cellphone rings and it is while she is distracted, trying to find the phone and take the call, that with a jolt and a lurch she runs over something or someone.

Shaken, she sits in the car while the radio discordantly plays an upbeat melody from the 1970s. A handprint on the car window reminds us both of the world she has just left (where we saw a young child leave the imprint on the glass) and also of the possibility that what she hit might well have been one of the kids we saw playing earlier.


But, recomposing herself slightly, Verónica drives on and only some yards further down the track stops to get out and wonder what kind of mess she has left behind her on the road. The camera captures only a blurred image out of focus; it looks perhaps like the dog, but there’s no going back to investigate.

For the rest of the film, then, we are caught up in the protagonist’s hazy sense of guilt and uncertainty about what might have happened. We have no direct access to Verónica’s consciousness–there are almost no point-of-view shots–but somehow her confusion is contagious as we are never quite sure about the social relationships around her.

There’s a husband, a brother, a lover, friends, and an endless stream of hired helps who do everything from cooking to massage. But if in some ways Verónica’s class and social status (she’s a dentist) seems always to have kept her insulated from the poverty of the broader society that surrounds her, now that insulation has turned to isolation and anomie.

Shortly after the accident, a rainstorm had set in and flooded the roadside canal at the scene. This is no cleansing shower, however; if anything, it merely muddies Verónica’s tracks and makes it all the more difficult for her to figure out subsequently what she could so easily have ascertained before the rain set in.

After some pause, she confesses her sense of guilt to her husband. He and his friends reassure her that of course she must have hit some animal rather than the child who does indeed prove to be missing until his body is dredged up from the swollen canal. But for all their reassurances, it turns out that Verónica’s intimates have carefully done the rounds to ensure that any trace of the collision and its consequences soon disappear: they quietly repair the car’s front fender and wipe the record of Vero’s subsequent hospital visit.

So Verónica is left with a sense of guilt, of doubt, but also ultimately of complicity. She dyes her hair as though she had something to hide, even if perhaps her true secret is that her doubts are in fact unfounded.

She has acquired the habit of deception even if there’s nobody to deceive or nothing to deceive them about.

Shame, in short, need have no final cause. In what is an allegory of attitudes towards the past and the legacy of Argentina’s dirty war, Martel seems to be suggesting that those who act as though they are guilty should indeed be treated as such. There is smoke without fire, and those who run even though they didn’t hit anything do so because they know that, carelessly insulated and distracted in their SUV, they might have killed a child, and that’s how they would react if they had.

YouTube Link: the film’s trailer.