Dance Insider Directory
featured photo

Flash Reviews
Go Home

Paris at the barricades again, May 1968, as seen in Chris Marker's "Le fond de l'air est rouge." Image courtesy Icarus Films.

Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

After a year of intensely following and reviewing the offerings of New York's 40+ year-old Anthology Film Archives, easily the best and bravest cinematheque in the United States and one of the top in the world, I think I'm finally beginning to understand what Anthology artistic director Jonas Mekas and his colleagues are up to, or rather, how they've chosen to manifest it. Historically partial to fiction and less engaged by documentaries, at first I wasn't particularly keen on the preponderance of the latter at Anthology. But after watching Chris Marker's "Le fond de l'air est rouge" (cryptically translated as "Grin Without a Cat," an allusion to Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat) and Sergei Loznitsa's "Revue" and "Blockade," all screening in "The Compilation Film" series beginning today at Anthology, I understand that what Mekas and crew are primarily interested in is film that knows it's film and that fully exploits the medium -- and even expands it.

Witness Marker's film. Issued in 1978 and 're-actualized' in 1993, "Le fond de l'air est rouge" (more literally translated as "The base of the air is red") has as its direct subject various liberation and anti-War struggles of the '60s and '70s, often with their roots in the end of World War II. And Marker's conclusion is depressing, even potentially paralyzing, especially in the dawn of a new movement essentially founded on the same claim, a more just distribution of wealth: All these movements, or if you prefer, The Movement, eventually failed, the cause of the failure as often as not the faulty execution -- some would say foundation -- of the theology which was its fount, Communism. Che Guevara, we're told in the film, seems to have finally understood that the real enemy was power, whether it called itself Capitalism or Socialism. The Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968 seems to have woken up Cuban leader Fidel Castro to the fact that Communism was not a de facto guarantor of Democracy, and could sometimes even menace it, as we see during poignant footage in which Castro wrestles in real time, while giving a speech denouncing the Soviet's sending tanks into Czechoslovakia, with the realization that he must condemn the Soviet incursion, even as he acknowledges that such criticism will play into the hands of "Imperialist" countries.

Perhaps most incredible, in the light of 2011, is a French Communist leader who finally allows, speaking in 1970, that the French Communist Party might just have to collaborate with other parties on the Left to defeat the bourgeoisie. The Communists barely broke 1 percent in the 2008 French presidential election, and in this year's, they're not even fielding their own candidate, preferring to back an ex-Socialist Party member. (Indeed, one person who seems to get it right in the film not too long after the events is Larry Bensky, the Pacifica Radio paragon and former Paris editor of the Paris Review, whose powers of analysis often have less lag time than most historians. Interviewed sometime in the 1970s, resplendent in John Lennon circa Abby Road long hair and beard, Bensky says that even though it may seem like there is less activism in the 1970s, those activists have already learned a lesson their '60s predecessors didn't, the necessity of working together with other groups.) Even seeing the weight Marker gives to French union leaders, both in direct interviews and in footage from demonstrations, is a jarring contrast with the present reality, when few private sector workers belong to unions and many union leaders seem more interested in securing their terrain than effectively advancing a worker-friendly agenda.

Add in to the chronology of events covered by Marker the killing of Che, Watergate, the assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende, and -- if I understand his thesis correctly -- the lack of any real legacy from France's May 1968 student movement (although it is moving to see a young Daniel Cohn-Bendit (a.k.a. "Danny the Red") hold forth in 1968 from the lens of 2012, when he's still an influential counter-balance to Capitalism-centric Euro-globalization, as co-president of the Green group in the EU Parliament), and Marker's evident conclusion that it all frittered away with the disintegration of Communism, and the film might seem depressing... on the editorial level anyway.

Why, then, does "Le fond de l'air est rouge" leave one feeling in a good mood?

What's inspiring about this film -- and makes it fit into the Anthology Film Archives mission, as I understand it anyway -- is how gorgeous, original, and genre-expanding it is as a film. To be honest, I was not up for yet another golden-aura'd '60s re-cap. I even felt that having lived it as a child growing up in San Francisco, I didn't particularly need a refresher course and it wouldn't teach me anything new. But with techniques including variously tinted sepia tones -- brown, orange, red -- as well as his skittish minimalist electronic score, interweaving end of WWII footage, film of demonstrations all over the world, direct interviews, speeches of the epoch seen on a television in a darkened room, even a slow-motion scene from a Chinese propaganda ballet with a woman in red slowly pirouetting and being turned and lifted by a man, Marker has created a real work of art.

He's also brought perspective to this story, so that it's not just a nostalgic replay of protest marches. The immediate perspective is Vietnam, and here he begins with harrowing footage that pre-dates WikiLeaks's release of audio revealing American helicopters mowing down civilians and even a journalist: We see and hear American bombers dropping bombs and Napalm on Vietnam, with the narration provided by one of the pilots, who could not be more excited than to be dropping napalm on "Vietcong" and seeing them flee their trenches into the open. He might be exulting over fireworks at a 4th of July picnic.

The larger context is of course how most of these movements fit in with the larger dream of Communism, and its gradual erosion. Here "Le fond de l'air est rouge," discouraging as it may be as an obituary for the movements of the '60s, offers a ray of hope from the ashes, if I can mix my metaphors: Cynics like to say that the Movement des Indignes, or "Occupy" movement as it's called in the U.S., doesn't know what it wants. But in fact it's the movement's very freedom from a specific dogma that may be its salvation. Dogmas can be anchors, but they can also be anvils.

A Soviet-era play, from Sergei Loznitsa's "Revue." Image courtesy Icarus Films.

An ancillary question that Marker's film raises, as relates to the Movement's taking Soviet Communism as an ideal to strive for, is "How could they have been duped?," also sometimes expressed as "How could we have been so naive?" Two documentaries also screening in Anthology's series "The Compilation Film," both from Sergei Loznitsa, provide a response.

In "Revue" (released in 2008), Loznitsa uses excerpts from newsreels, propaganda films, TV shows, feature films, even stage plays that depict Soviet life in the 1950s and '60s... from a Soviet point of view. While there are some interviews with workers that seem canned and hyper-bucolic, there are also simple scenes of citizens constructing dams, delivering food on a boat to flooded houses in a small village, planting seeds, and harvesting. One portly woman even presents a giant sugar beet to a bureaucrat in the agriculture section, and he promises to try to visit her agricultural collective. There's folk-dance and even more biting performance, notably what appears to be a satire of Western rock featuring a puppet surf band replete with sliding Dick Dale guitarist. You don't have to be a sucker to want to believe in the idyll presented here; just last night on the Republican presidential debate from North Carolina, candidate Newt Gingrich was extolling the nobility of janitorial work for young people and encouraging them to 'own' their jobs.

Archival footage of the siege of Leningrad from Sergei Loznitsa's "Blockade." Image courtesy Icarus Films.

In "Blockade," composed entirely of rarely-seen footage found in Soviet film archives of the World War II siege of Leningrad, which lasted 900 days and cost at least 600,000 lives, Loznitsa eschews bombast and lets the images speak for themselves, most poignantly a constant parade of dead bodies, many not so much abandoned on the street as taken for granted and accepted by a people not so much heroically as stoically resisting as if it were their fate to do so. Even an ultimate scene in which German soldiers are hung for massacring Russians by having them stand on trucks and the trucks simply driving away from under them to set them hanging is straightforwardly presented. The plaza is crowded, but no one is cheering, just bearing witness. The film reminds us how this heroic feat leavened the myth of Soviet society and the dream it held for others with a heady dose of heroism.

"Blockade" screens today at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday, January 25 at 8:45, with "Revue" showing tonight at 9 and Wednesday, January 25 at 7. "Le fond de l'air est rouge" screens tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4:30.

Flash Reviews
Go Home