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The Arts Voyager, 12-13: Les Anarchistes
Watkins's "La Commune," Tanner's "Charles...," and Mekas's 'Sleepless' nights @ Anthology

Communards in Peter Watkins's "La Commune." Image courtesy of Icarus Films.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

Halfway through "La Commune," Peter Watkins's 5-hour, 45-minute tour de force which simultaneously resurrects the insurrectional barricades Parisians erected around their city to stave off a new monarchist government and tears down the barricades between documentary and fiction, I had to stop and e-mail a Parisian friend to ask if she'd seen the film. My friend -- an artist denizen of Belleville, one of the quarters evoked by Watkins -- had not even heard of it. This vindicated Watkins as far as the one major reservation I have about "La Commune," that the otherwise educative inter-titles, filling in the basic historical timeline around the events of March - May 1871, sometimes cede to the film-maker's rants about the obstacles to getting his film distributed in France -- even its co-producer the German-French television network Arte screened "La Commune" from 11 at night to 4 in the morning -- and claims the Commune is under-taught in French schools. The media blockade is of course not incidental, indeed validates the film's relevance in presenting a model of a utopian ideal which directly menaces the ruling financial and political elites. (My friend also e-mailed back that she'd just been watching an Arte prime-time program on Al Capone and the Roaring '20s, a subject less likely to rile its audience to revolt in these heady days of the Euro-crisis. Maybe.) Anyone who doubts that such elites still exist, even in France, need look no further than the country's Socialist party, which recently imposed non-resident and former presidential candidate Segolene Royal on the Atlantic coast city of La Rochelle as the party's candidate for the national assembly, denying local party members the right to choose their nominee.

Regardless of whether Watkins's 2000 film will ever get more currency in France, New Yorkers will be able to see "La Commune" Sunday at Anthology Film Archives, as part of AFA's festival "Anarchism" on film, which opens Friday and runs through December 23, once again reminding us that anyone who associates 'archives' with 'ancient history' has never been to Anthology. While technically speaking its "Occupy Wall Street at AFA" week-end isn't until January 7-8, this film is tailor-made to inspire modern activists with its historic example of a revolution that went beyond militating against a capitalist-driven ruling power and tried to set up an egalitarian alternative.

Watkins also advances his own cinematic anarchy, albeit in an intricately controlled environment. The events are convincingly compressed into the physical stage of a giant warehouse in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, which has its own heady history of Resistance, in which Watkins reconstructs the 11th arrondissement of Paris, home to the Bastille and, in earlier times, one of the poorest of Parisian districts. (The building is on the site of the former studios of animation pioneer Georges Melies, a cinema revolutionary in his own right.) Watkins hired 200 'non-professional' actors to play the feminists, members of the military central committee, first elected council, citizens, and school-children of the Commune, as well as soldiers of military units from the government which has set up offices in Versailles, bourgeoisie merchants who have elected to or been forced to stay in Paris, prime minister Adolphe Thiers, etcetera. The chief narrative device is nothing new to anyone who remembers the CBS radio and television program "You are there," with participants in this pre-television event interviewed by reporters from "Commune T.V.," who have set up an alternative to National Versailles Television, which tends to skew its coverage in hilarious nightly newscasts which perfectly nail the genre. One of the Commune T.V. reporters even quits when the Commune council sets up a "Public Safety Committee" with frightening echoes of the Terror of Robespierre because he can no longer remain objective, only to return at the end to report directly from the barricades as the Communards desperately confront the final assault of the invading Versailles troupes. He -- and we -- are then directly challenged to crash through the third wall when the citizens he's trying to interview shout at him to drop his microphone and pick up a rifle.

Watkins's own anarchy manifests in the eventual crumbling of the narrative wall, when the actors suddenly suspend their portrayals to become their contemporary real selves. A meeting of feminist militants of 1871 becomes a meeting of feminists in 1999, debating not their place in the Commune but the constrictions and restrictions they face in contemporary French society. (As far as women's liberation goes, France is still stuck in 1960; women are expected to be bread-winners, bread-makers, mothers and mistresses.) The inter-titles suddenly switch from recounting the chronology of 1871 to discussing the plight of women and sans-papiers (illegal immigrants) in France today. The links are certainly there; in 1871 as in 1940 and 2001, xenophobes blamed the nation's troubles on foreigners. Intervening about three hours into the film, with three hours still left to go before Paris is stormed, these lengthy sequences of contemporary debates started to make me lose patience with Watkins. Perhaps for a die-hard francophile it might be romantic to watch Frenchmen and women in passionate debate, but for anyone who's lived among them, it's nothing new. It also stalls the momentum of the story. But it does also serve to explain how the Commune itself got bogged down, because of factors that still stymie progress in France today and that have always plagued its military strategy. One of the probable causes of its defeat, as a council member bemoans too late, when the city's forts are starting to wilt under the siege of the monarchist troupes, is that the Communards wasted too much time forming committees, diverting their attention from more practical matters like forging a concentrated military defense. The French have always been more adept at militant didactics than military cohesion.

The saving grace of these contemporary digressions is that not only can it be argued they're not really digressions, because they reveal how the spirit of the Commune and its ideals still lives, however dormant, in contemporary Frenchmen and women, but that these debates not only anticipate those of "Les Indignes" (the European movement which -- newsflash!, it didn't start here! -- inspired Occupy Wall Street), they provide the riposte to those 'journalists' from the contemporary equivalent of National Versailles Television who snidely insist the Occupiers don't know what they want. It's not about "Redistribution of Wealth" but installing a more just set of rules for the acquisition of, not just monetary wealth but social well-being. But countering the propaganda propagated by corporate-controlled media requires a counter-point, and here "La Commune" is a start, furnishing not just an extended polemic but an inspiring precedent.

Marcel Robert and Marie-Claire Dufour in Alain Tanner's "Charles, Dead or Alive." Image courtesy Alain Tanner.

Even if "La Commune" is engaging enough, chiefly grace of its actors, that sitting through its 5 hours and 45 minutes doesn't feel like work, you still might like to reward yourself with Alain Tanner's much lighter "Charles, Mort ou Vif" (Charles, Dead or Alive), screening December 19 and 23 as part of AFA's anarchist film festival. Made in 1969, the film echoes some of Jean-Luc Godard's movies of the epoch, inspired by both Karl and the Brothers Marx. Charles De (Francois Simon, son of the legendary Michel Simon), the director of a Geneva watch-making concern he's inherited from his father and grandfather, faces a mid-life crisis that has him questioning not only his career choice, but his entire class. He takes up with a Bohemian couple living in full nature after the man (Marcel Robert) responds to De's railing against the automobile by pushing his off a cliff. Branching the film's events to the 1968 student and worker revolts in Paris, Charles's daughter Marianne (Maya Simon) is part of a militant youth movement. His son Pierre (Andre Schmidt) makes up the other end of the family's dialectic spectrum, and finally has his father committed before his escapades ruin the company. Unlike "La Commune," here the barriers are broken down, the human bonds forged between Paul and companion Adeline (Marie-Claire Dufour) being more powerful than any class divides. Adding to the Godardesque tone is Jacques Olivier's quaintly haunting score for flute.

Louise Bourgeois in Jonas Mekas's new "Sleepless Nights Stories." Image courtesy Jonas Mekas.

Speaking of Godardian techniques and cinematic anarchists, all this comes to you grace of Jonas Mekas, the avant-garde film-maker who founded Anthology more than 40 years ago. Unlike many curator-artists these days, Mekas does not abuse his position to showcase his own work. Anthology is selective about the Mekas morsels it does offer, so when he pops up on the program, it's generally worth seeing. His latest film diary, "Sleepless Nights Stories" opening for its premiere U.S. theatrical run Thursday at Anthology, where it continues through December 23, is classic episodic Mekas, a ramble through after-hours New York and Paris, usually accompanied by cohorts 1/3 his physical age, with the notable exceptions of a dance floor escapade with Mekas and Yoko Ono and a segment entirely comprised of a close-up of Louise Bourgeois and the slow ballet of the rivulets on her aged face. These miniatures are introduced by type-written inter-titles that often conclude with "Praise be to Allah." We see a woman casually riding a horse around a generic East Village auditorium until with undramatic aplomb the horse trips and she falls, landing flat on her back; follow a young couple through their engagement and first child; taste test questionable vintage French wine in a Paris apartment, an evening ending in a performance in which the puckish Mekas gets up to sing an eloge to an under-heralded colleague, backed by the Frenchies; and more. Mekas sticks his tongue out at the t.v. directors who think they're doing something different by using a hand-held camera; he's just as prone to leave his on the edge of a table, as one interloper points out, the only question being whether he's indifferent to whether it falls off the table or praying for its descent. Praise be to Jonas Mekas and the art of the happy planned accident.

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