The Spider’s Stratagem: The Truth about Political Myth is a Lie

2009 July 17
by Zachary McCune

spidersstratagem

In “The Spider’s Stratagem,” we find a son without a father, a son whose identity is only that of his father, and a son whose inquiry into the death of his father will only bring his father further to life. Like a parasite, the myth surrounding the father invades the son, and uses the son as a something of a host. Overtaken by the spirit of his father, Athos the younger channels a paranoia about the village. He imagines it conspiring to kill him. And unable to forge an identity separate from his father, the younger Athos descecrates his father’s grave. This Oedipal Complex- the drama of two Athoses (both played by the same actor, both given the same name)- is the central struggle of the film, as both the living protagonist and the spectator look for some way to differentiated that which refuses to be differentiated. The son wishes to have a life of his own, which is why is so driven to find out his father’s murderer. Only by discovering such a thing can the image of the father be finally laid to rest, and the younger Athos given agency over his own life.

Athos & The Village

The village, to which the son has returned after spending his entire life away from it, cannot discern a difference between the son and the father . They see the son as “Athos resurrected,” and immediately, the son is inserted into the village’s society as though he is the father. Athos’ mistress flirts unendingly with him, old family friends emerge from out of the woodwork to spend time with him, and old enemies re-apply their grudges to the younger Athos.  When Athos is punched in the morning, he is taking the “sins of the father, vested on the son.” When he flees his father’s friends in the forest, it is because he is performing his father’s own betrayal of the Socialist cause.

Collapsed Time

Time has a very symbolic status in this film, as Bertolucci takes pains to compress and collapse time so that it is difficult to discern between the present and the cinematic “flashback.” Where most film’s use a cinematic sign (like a dissolve fade or a different style of cinematography) to differentiate between temporalities, Bertolucci does no such thing. He does not even change the dress or appearance of his actors. They are the same in the “present” as they are in the “past.” The fact that Athos (the son) returns to the village of Tara at the percise age when his father was murdered, after being absent in the city from the exact time of his father’s murder further demonstrates the way in which Bertolucci has initially framed the story to take on an aspect of the eternal or the unbroken. To many of the villagers, seeing the younger Athos suggests that Athos is not dead. He continues to live, and the political reality of the older Athos (socialists vs. fascists) seems to be resurrected with the arrival of the son. There is no present in this film, just a prolonged past that will not progress. There is no incursion of external reality in the film, as the man at the train station reports that the newspaper does not come at all- “sometimes they forget about us completely” she says. In the opposite direction, the statement is only more true.

Symbolic Identity: A Hero is More Useful

A highly psychological film, Bertolucci invites the spectator to think about human identity and subjectivity throughout this film. Like a Structuralist film essay, we are show the semiotic signs of people (the photographs, statues and memorials for Athos Magnani the elder) which are taken to be supreme marks of identity. They represent the transcendence of human identity for eternal mythological identity. These signs are also the conscious result of the elder Athos deciding to transform his identity from a living, person (with the flaws of betraying his cause) into a heroic symbol. As he looks over the village of Tara (already having achieved the transcendence his death will literally cement) he strikes upon the need for him to both be punished for betraying the cause, and made into a symbol for the cause. A traitor, he understands, is a dangerous thing for the socialist movement, “a hero is more useful.”

The Critique of the Political Sign

The dark truth about the fictiousness of Athos’ death reveals the emptiness of political mythology. Like an advertisement or the film itself, the production of the myth has been intentionally mis-represented to incriminate one political movement at the benefit of another. But it is all the work of the same political movement. Moreover, the death of Athos is welcomed by the very people it incriminates. So it ends up being of use to both political parties, showing the uselessness of the gesture. Athos’ death, while becoming  a component of local history, is still at the manipulative needs of the popular local history. Because the fascists have been overthrown (imaginably) at the time of this film, Athos is seen a moral conscious who died for his CORRECT beliefs. But should Mussolini remained in power, the death of Athos would have been a testament to the potency of the fascist spirit in Tara.

As it stands, the film presents very little political activism, or interest in producing real political change, but instead like the Opera focuses on a performed identity of politics. This is why Athos must dance to the Internationale, and why he must be martyred to become a symbol. Because in the end, as Bertolucci suggests, political activity is just the production and manipulation of political signs- a very superficial and self-involved process.

The Crying Game: The Lost Heart of the IRA

2009 July 17
by Zachary McCune
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One can Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game” as a political romance. The film begins with a romantic encounter, and ends with one. The juxtaposition between these romantic liasons represent something of a yin and a yang. The first liason is overtly sexual and steeped in manipulation, it is a set-up. The second liason is almost entirely de-sexualized to the point that it represents an ideal platonic relationship, though there is undeniably a “love.”

“The Troubles” Context

But what does this mean for the film’s political content? After all the film is contextualized in the struggle of the IRA in the late 1980’s, a time in Irish history often referred to as “the troubles.” In a common historic maneuver, the IRA had taken a British hostage as collateral for an Irish prisoner in British custody. The threat has been made to the British that harming the Irishmen will result in similar vengeance upon the British soldier. But it is here the film’s overt politicality becomes tempered by a humanizing development: Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) becomes a friend of the soldier (played by Forrest Whitaker) and the tension one expects to find between the two is overcome by finding common ground. This a threat to very dynamic that drives the IRA and its tactics, as the understanding that builds between the two men suggests the power of reconciliation. Far from the political desires of the IRA, which call for the expunging the British presence in Northern Ireland, Fergus and the British soldier offer a working example of co-existence.

The Post-Colonial Question

Or do they? It may be important to stress here that the British soldier is black, a native of Antigua and thus a symbol of Britain’s colonial history. Now a post-colonial subject, the British Soldier may be meant by Jordan to represent a parallel to Irealand’s own complicated colonial status with Britain. In this way, Fergus and the soldier are both victims of the same imperial impulse, and manipulated by that empire they are made enemies to one another, when they actually share a great deal in both political and emotional common.

Irish vs. British

Why does Neil Jordan not make the British soldier a more recognizably British character? Quite possibly, it is to complicate the clean division of British and Irish. Though the IRA want to see Jody (the soldier) as nothing other than British, Fergus and the viewer find fault in such simplification. He’s on the wrong side of the war, granted, but he isn’t British proper, and thus he becomes hard to reduce to enemy. Cricket, in this context, becomes an important symbol by which Jody further demonstrates his British-ness, while again bringing up questions of the post-colonial. Nowhere is cricket more beloved, one may recall, than in India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean- British former colonial empire. Contrasted with Cricket is the Irish Hurling, a sport we’ve seen used before (in the Wind That Shakes the Barley) as a icon of Irish culture and its need for independence.

The Second Half

The film’s famous second half, which dramatically changes the tenor of the film, is less politically interesting than its implications. Our protagonist, Fergus, has fled to England to escape both the IRA and the British military. In short, he has attempted to escape the very context that embroiled him in conflict. In London, he is a occasional victim of Irish slurs, but it is nothing he can’t handle. Still, Fergus is haunted by Jody, who appears to him in dreams as if about to bowl a cricket ball at him. If we follow the metaphor of the sport, this means that Fergus is up to bat, and that he must defend the wickets, and try to score. Which means going to talk with Jody’s ex-girlfriend, a thing Jody had wanted very much for Fergus to do.

London: an opening to the global

The London that we find in the romancing of “Dil” (Jody’s ex) is something of a cosmology. With references to Paris in the name of the bar (”The Metro”) that the two frequent, the Bohemian vibe of the city, and the exoticness of Dil herself, London becomes an opening for Fergus as he escapes the small-mindness of the Irish-British conflict. Fergus is happy. And we enjoy seeing him happy, though we are uneasily waiting for conflict to rear its head again- where is the betrayal going to come from?

Two threats

The spoiler of course, is that Dil is a man. But that is not all. At about the same moment, the IRA re-emerge in Fergus’ life, forcing him into an assasination attempt to make up for his percieved desertion. Fergus is trapped between these two emergent realities. How can he deal with both his love life, and his dangerous political alter ego.

Jude: Love & Politics Bound

Jude, Fergus’ former girlfriend, and a member of the IRA, is the bridge between Fergus political and romantic lives. When he was dating her, the two lives were the same. Without her, the two become distinct, to the point where Fergus can actually extricate himself from the political struggle of the IRA by fleeing Ireland. Symbolically, Jude is always presented as the political and the romantic (or perhaps more appropriately the lustful) bound together. When she seduces Jody, she masquerades as a love interest but secret manifests a political alterior.

When Jude finds Fergus, she forcibly re-unites the political and romantic lives that Fergus wants to keep separate. At stake is the romantic life that Fergus has come to prefer. He is not thrilled that Dil is a man, but he still has feelings for her/him and trusts Dil more than anyone. Ultimately, only Dil can make things right as s/he shoots Jude- that binding character- to kill off Fergus’ political obligations.

Amor Vincit Omnia?

Is this a simple love conquers all motif? Not quite, although it superficial suggests that people find ways to love not to hurt. Jude can be seen as a perversion of love, as she falsely manipulates love for political purposes, a perversion that only Dil, whose queer identity is actually presented as wholesome and natural, can overcome. When Dil kills Jude, s/he takes vengeance for Jody and liberates Fergus, casting her as a sort of love of retribution. And while her happy relationship with Fergus might seem to suggest the secret homosexuality of the IRA, or the weakness of its membership, we can do well to remember that Fergus is the exception not the rule. He is the “kind” soldier who cannot Jody in the back (or for that matter at all) while the rest of the IRA corps is seen to be almost as unfeeling as a Fergus is concerned. The film thus represents something of an appeal to the humanity of political struggle, and a warning about binding love & revolution in the same place. Kept separate, love can conquer all, but bound with politics, love appears a most perverse and misguided monster.

Amacord: Fellini’s Selective Political Memory

2009 July 16
by Zachary McCune

Fellini’s “Amacord” is a shameless exploitation of nostalgia and memory. Like “8 1/2″ it is a self indulgent film, but unlike that seminal work, “Amacord” attempts no interrogation of human subjectivity, no rumination on the creative proccess, no exposition on the human imagination, no consideration of society’s fantasies and nightmares. No, “Amacord” is nothing like Fellini’s earlier work which engaged human life from the neorealist tradition, assailing Italy as a subject of pity, identification, love, and betrayal. This is not “La Strada” or “La Dolce Vita,” this is the selective memory of an Italian childhood which is inhabited solely by cardboard cutouts of characters. It is not a real place, though such pains have been taken to assure us that we are really there. It is a like a cake that has been baked too sweetly, and is now inedible because of its ignorance for true human appetites.

What can we say out the film’s politicality? Explicitly, Fellini interrogates politics for about ten minutes, as he portrays Mussolini’s visit to the town, and the subsequent radical act of someone planting a gramaphone to play the internationale. When the black shirts over-react to this occurence, we sense their lack of confidence in their own authority. When Fellini’s father is pulled before the local Fascists to answer their questions and suffer their iconic castor oil, we are close to something of a real political statement. But we never get there. Instead, the fascists remain only the butt of a joke, like Fellini’s own socialist father. And following Fellini’s own focus on his mother, we see the director electing his maternal political neutrality rather than interrogating the difficulties of his father’s subversive politics. Like the father, we are locked away from the film’s events by a wife who doesn’t want to risk our life. And this keeps the rest of the film politicality unconsidered. We move through the seasons, following natural impulses (the sexuality of the boys and the lascivious females) never approaching a real conflict save the death of the mother who protected Fellini from the assailment of the real world. It is at this moment where we think we might finally break through into something diegetically trying and therefore true, that the film ends with a wedding. All is made right by Fellini’s film, but nothing is considered or resolved. The film is like a promotional video for the Carnivalesque life of the Italian countryside, and we are no more than tourists in the memories of Fellini.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise: Preposterous and True

2009 July 16
by Zachary McCune
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Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is political film with the motivations of surrealistic art, substituting the expected with the inappropriate and satirically undermining the realist fidelity of the film’s narrative to confront his bourgeoisie protagonists with nightmares of their own creation. Theirs are the crisises of the mundane: a mis-scheduled dinner date, a dead man at a restaurant, and a frightful moment where their private, intimate life is a made into a cruel spectacle on a stage. Like the revered British tradition of the aristocracy, these bourgeoisie protagonists attempt to keep a “stiff upper lip” throughout the assault on their lifestyle, but cannot grasp a secret meaning in it all. For these reason, one of the film’s recurring refrains is “what is the meaning of this?” as if the lack of tea at a lunch club has something of a hidden significance. Which is both preposterous and true, the combination of which constitues the film’s eponymous “charm.”

First World Vs. Third World

In terms of political satire, Bunuel seems to be preoccupied in the film by contrasting the first world of France with the third world of “Miranda”- the fictional republic whose ambassador, Rafael, we find among the film’s protagonists. Rafael is a something of a pointed stereotype of Latin American diplomats. First, he is extremely well-spoken and well-mannered; there is virtually no distinction between him and his French comrades. To this degree, the ambassador immediately betrays his class status, surely suggesting that he is a bourgeoisie member of his own country, given access to learning french and the bylaws of good society. He is Latin American privilege personified, and in this regard he most certainly Bunuel’s (who spent long periods of time in Mexico) punching bag.

Never once do we see the ambassador attempting anything on behalf of the Mirandan people. Instead, he is implicitated in a drug ring with his two French male protagonists. The drug, emphasizing the first world-third world divide again, is cocaine. We might ask what the drug represents for the film? Is it a social sign, an export of ineffable Latin American “exotic” which is taken by France’s bourgeoisie as a sort of drug? Probably. More to the point, this drug dealing is one of the least unexpected or ridiculous components of the film (in contrast to the surrealistic absurdities that haunt our protagonists) surely suggesting how implicated we as spectators are in maintaining the first world-third world divide that the film stakes out for us. No one cries foul when Rafael is tormented by the confrontation of negative Miranda stereotypes at the Colonel’s ball (”I hear Miranda has the highest homicide rate per capita in the world”). To the contrary, one finds themselves suppressing a laugh at these moments as the veil of propereity protecting the ambassador from such suggested “facts” and “honesty” is transgressed. The ridiculous element of this interplay is that in the bourgeoisie circles Bunuel moves us through, such confrontation seems improper and indeed it is. Rafael, though representing the third-world, is actually shown to be more “first-world” than French society itself. But this reversal cannot stand for long. Insulted by the Colonel, Rafael’s “hot Latin passion” is awoken and he kills the colonel- an action that would represent a veritable coup in his native land.

The Student Revolutionaries

Rafael is also haunted by revolutionaries. Embodied by a single attractive woman, the revolutionaries are a parody of student unrest. Like Nada (particularly Buenaventura Diaz) Bunuel’s revolutionary is an romantic figure, given an air of charged eroticism by her devotion to kill the ambassador. But the ambassador regularly outwits the revolutionary, proving the threat of insurrection in Latin America by students as a somewhat empty threat. Perhaps it would do well to read this student revolutionary in light of the 68 Mexico City riots, whose zeal could not ovecome the government’s power or ruthlessness, a spectacle that Bunuel must have noticed.

France: The Country Estate

The Senechal family estate is perhaps the film’s most frequent setting. Here absurdity of all types occurs, as the Senechal’s sneak out of their home to make love while their guests wait (and then suspect a coming raid) or are approached by the local Catholic bishop who wishes to be their gardener. During one dinner, the home is literally invaded by French troops working on manuevers in the area, and at the end of the film, the protagonists are assassinated by Hollywoodized thugs (whose significance seems very opaque). Taken as a whole, the Senechal estate seems represent something of France itself, a microcosm of the Nation’s own identity and activity. Where the home might be expected to be outside of such routine invasions and symbolic repurposings, it is instead perpetually invaded and made the setting of absurd National activities. The only thing the home cannot successfully do is that which it perpetually attempts: host a nice, quiet dinner party.

It is this microcosmic status of the home that suggests the intimacy that the bourgeoise have with the nation and its activities. Far from being able to escape such incursions from the Nation, the villa is the one place where no one can find solace of any kind. Alternatively, the villa may be considered as a sign of the cinema in France itself: the sexual oddysey represents the popularity of romances, the invasion of the army suggests the military films so popular in post-war France, and the murderous thugs at the end of the film represent base Hollywood invading the tranquility of the French film industry with their needless violence. The episdoic events of the home might also represent particular French films, as the Bishop might allude to “Diary of Country Priest.”

Links

A.O. Scott on “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”-

http://video.nytimes.com/video/2009/04/27/movies/1194839828798/critics-picks-discreet-charm.html

Zabriskie Point: Children of Nature against Plastic People

2009 July 10
by Zachary McCune
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Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point is a film that pits nature against civilization, connecting the untainted natural world with the spirit of youth and impulses of the counter culture movement and contrasting this symbolic nature with the plastic humanity of capitalism and American consumer culture. Several images in the film, most notably the film’s iconic desert orgy, and the advertisement for Sunnydunes suburban housing with manikins, exemplify this binary. But there are complications to this gentle division. For instance, how are we to resolve the student uprising that frames the film’s early action with the desire of Mark and Daria to become a part of America’s wilderness. Perhaps they are actually a third option in the man vs.  children of revolution binary that historically occurred in America when alienated hippies decided that if they could not change the civilization itself, they would re-invent civilization on their own terms “in the wild.”

From History to Myth

Zabriskie Point moves from the bosom of civilization in to the heart of nature. It likewise moves from a highly historicized vision of counter culturism to a sort of myth of counter culturism. The film’s first image- students discussing the need for revolution and debating with black panthers over the status of white revolution- is one that was common on college campuses in the 1960’s and early 70’s. Despondent black students (including those at Brown University, and Columbia) would stage a protest by occupying a major building. White students, comprising a majority of students in university at the time, would often rally to their cause, despite the differences and the panther’s admonition of the white student’s status as true revolutionaries. Fed up with this simplistic binary of students vs. the police (and larger society) Mark attempts only one intervention, which is utterly beyond that of his comrades, as he imagines killing a cop. Unable to do so, but implicated in the crime nonetheless, Mark evades perceived police stalking by stealing a plane and flying into the desert. His theft is highly enigmatic, as we know he is not guilty, and we are likewise perplexed by his ability to fly a plane. Like the scene earlier in the film where he evades his rich, bourgeoisie sister on Sunset Avenue, we wonder just who Mark was, and why he is running away from that. This is a question that Antonioni does not assist in answering.

Like a Shakespearean play (particularly Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the flight into the desert serves as a symbolic escape from order into chaos. It invites the understanding of the natural world as that of carnival, where rules are turned upside down. And in this regard, Mark acts playfully with Daria as he confronts her automobile with his airplane. Are these symbols of the American male and female?  Is this the mechanical revolution’s mother earth (car) and father sky (plane)?

The world of the desert is a world of myth. The children act devilish and out of their civilized character- they are sexually aware and even preverse. But all is made well when Mark and Daria meet. Their love is as natural as the environment, a conclusion drawn out by Antonioni in the explicitness of the desert sex scene. They are happy. We are happy. Things in the desert seem right, and only once Mark returns to the civilized world is he at risk again. His death proves the vitality of the alternative living he and Daria persued in the desert.

Sunnydunes: Incursion into Nature

The Desert Villa, and the plan of its owner to domesticate the desert and commodify it, are the latent threat in the film that directly contradict what Daria and Mark find there. Daria is represented by Antonioni as something like the desert, something that her boss Lee, longs to possess. She resists at the end of the film because she has known Mark, the more fair and complimentary lover, who can love without possession, the visitor into nature who explores but does not own. Like a conservation advertisement, this line of reasoning suggests that Antonioni denounces the American conquest of nature, particularly its iconic west. By offering the cinematic sign of the sunset- a sign of the end and resolution of a Western film- Antonioni “hacks” the value of this traditional American cinematic icon and inserts a new meaning- that America should love the desert as a visitor not an owner.

Sympathy for The Devil: Rock n’ Roll Rhetoric

2009 July 8
by Zachary McCune

Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil casts rock n’ roll as a political manifesto, surrounding its construction and re-invention with symbolic imaginings of the counter culture movement. While the Rolling Stones attempt to get their song right, Godard cuts in highly stylized portraits of a blank panther corps, and narration on Communist/Revolutionary themes. At other points in the film, Godard presents a provocative graffiti artist tagging London with counterculture slogans, a comic book store with Marxist overtones, and an interview with a woman named “Eve Democracy” who responds to questions with either yes or no.

Clearly, Godard is trying to say something, but the question is what? Like most Godard films, a certain enigma shadows the entire film, acting like a pervasive mise en scene of philosophic uncertainty. Can we trust the script to represent Godard’s meaning? Do the black panthers recite his political convictions? Or is the interview with democracy where Godard takes off his stylist mask to explicate the film? It’s unclear. What does seem obvious, is the the recording seessions of the Rolling Stones are actually the least important components of this film. Though the Stones do seem to undergo a series of changes (musically and otherwise) in the film, they are always imprisoned in the studio, working for the man. It is hard not to see them as a political prisoners of the bourgeoisie, as the record executives are always surveilling them in the corners of the shots, or speaking into the studio through intercom. Juxtaposed to these tight, claustrophobic indoor spaces are the scenes of nature where we find “Eve Democracy” or the black panther scenes, who we find in a junkyard near a river.

That said, everyone has their own “sphere” in this film, a metaphor that is reinforced by Godard’s cyclical film styling. Like an Angelopoulous film, Godard uses several 360 degree swivels in this film, imagining the counter culture as a theatre in the round. Not accidentally, this style of filmmaking doesn’t actually take us anywhere. Instead, we are always returning to the beginning. No one leaves their own “sphere” despite discussing the need to. And while the Rolling Stones sing of an entire world order and world history, they are presented as the most removed from the world. Why, one wonders, did Godard not follow the musicians home or out of the studio. Why are they trapped in the studio? Why no live shows? Or interviews?

Why (we might alternatively ask) does the caged bird sing? This is a question for Mick Jagger and his musicians. Why do they sing in their bourgeoisie captivity about the revolution that is overthrowing the status quo? And why does the bourgoisie music industry allow them?

The answer must be that the film is not as radical as it appears to be. It seems to commodify revolution, to make it palatable. Democracy only yes or no, but the radical black panthers or comic book clerk read incessently. They are always reading. They are never doing. This is a film about the pyshical nothingness of mediated culture. Music, revolution, and politics are isolated activities in the film, contrasting the popular understanding of the time period that everything was interconntected. Never do we hear music in the revolutionary scenes, we only hear their reading. Their recital.

So the film essentially boils down to be Rolling Stones jam sessions and political manifestoes. It has several symbolic components, such as the killing of the white women in white sheets (some sore of virginal ritual sacrifice) and the salutes of the comic book store patrons, but these components cannot liven up the film past its status as a cinematic cultural critique. What does it say? I think it says something critical about the Anglo-American style of revolution. In the USA and in Britain, revolution is academic or musical, but lacks a practical political reality. Having born witness to may 1968 in Paris, Godard seems to be tongue in cheek about Anglo-American ideas of revolution. This is why the comic book store cleark is the only one reading Marx. Because the comic book is a sign of intelligence in France, but sneered upon in Britain and the US as childish, youthful. Which is precisely the attitude in those countries about Marxism and revolution.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley: Ireland as Family History

2009 July 8
by Zachary McCune
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In The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Irish history is presented through a tightly controlled focus, visually re-imagining Ireland’s war for independence not at some National or even global scale, but within a small Irish community and even more potently, between the fates of two brothers. The brothers, Damien and Teddy Donovan, serve as twin protagonists in the film, though it is really Damien (played by Cillian Murphy) who most invites the empathy of the spectator.

The Irish

The film opens in the midst of a Hurling match, a traditional Irish pastime. Framed by the Irish mountains and filled with lively, joyful cheering, the match seems to present Ireland at its most idyllic- a country untouched by time, with an agrarian heritage and a joyful disposition. Though the match is filled with hits, fouls, and over-excited jostling, everyone appears to be friends. In fact, the only discernible rivalry is that which exists between Damien and Teddy Donovan, our brother protagonists, who are a bit too antigonistic for the rules of the umpire.

The British

Damien is on his way to London. A noted student, he is about to become a doctor at a fine British hospital. His older brother meanwhile is something of a radical, leading the local flying column of IRA volunteers. As Damien says his good-byes, the tranquility of the Irish countryside is interrupted by the hostility and violence of a local British regiment, who shouts at the young Irishmen for playing hurling, a violation of British law forbidding Irish group meetings. The hostility of the British, as well as their disdain for the Irish pastime presents them as insensitive and agressive. Though the Brits seem to contend that the Irish are a rebellious lot, their wooden Hurling bats contrast heavily with the British rifles, demonstrating visibly the inequal power dynamic.

The Catalyst

One of the Hurling players refuse to identify himself in English. Responding only in Gaelic, he is taken by the British troops into a farmhouse and beaten to death. Again, we find that any performance of Irish identity (such as hurling, and now the Irish language itself) is viewed as a radical act and punished exorbitantly. This theme is familiar in many filmic portrayals of emerging radicalism and the cause for revolution. The maligned national identity seems to be a potent emotional package for political filmmaking.

The death of their friend shakes the community. Damien is tempted not to go to London, but attempts to do so anyway. At the train station, he witnesses further unchecked British hostility when British troops beat a train conductor for disallowing their passage on the train. History, it seems, is preventing Damien from leaving Ireland. He becomes drafted by his political context into the service of Ireland’s fight for independence.

The IRA

Like most portrayals of the Irish in this film, the IRA volunteers are romanticized along classic Irish stereotypes. Like the friendly, sport-loving people spectators first found the Irish at the Hurling match, the IRA volunteers train with a certain lack of seriousness. Instead of rifles, they carry their hurling sticks, recalling the injustic that provokes them to war, and their misunderstanding of the gravity of their situation. In an early training exercise, the commander points out the memebers of the troop who would have died and then tells the troop that without those men they are all dead. Community, an important theme of the film, stresses the total involvement of society for the Irish rebellion to be successful.

The IRA rob a British barrack for its ammunitions, then kill four troops at a bar. The British put the county under martial law, arresting all men, and recklessly looting Irish homes. There is virtually no attempt to humanize them or see it from their perspective in the film. The British are always wrong.

But the fledgling IRA is ratted out. Pressured by a local British lord, Chris Reilly (who had cautioned the bar patrons to be quiet about what they saw during the 4-troop hit) informs on his comrades. They are arrested, and Teddy Donovan is tortured. Damien is set to be executed by a British officer, but the officer cannot do it. While Damien reprimands him for represnting a government “unelected” by the Irish people, the officer can only rebuff that the British soldier in the field doesn’t care that much, he only wants to live longer than the friends he lost in WWI. This is a rare moment of British perspective in the film.

A British soldier of Irish birth betrays the British during the night and lets the Irish out. They soon take vengance on the local lord, and more emotionally, on Chris Reilly. When Damien is order to kill Chris Reilly, a lifelong friend, we see Ireland at the difficult cross-roads of having to protect itself from its own citizens and friends. But there is honor in this death, as Chris is granted far more than the British lord, and it emotionally challenges Damien to do in his friend.

Irish Factioning

Up until this point, The Wind that Shakes the Barley has presented a very familiar portait of Irish history. But by the halfway point of the film, the Irish have won local autonomy and must face questions over how they will rule. On one hand, we have the idea of keeping the existing (capitalist) system, and simply installing Irish citizens into positions of power. On the other, we have the emerging cause for communist/socialist governance in Ireland, that would empower the average Irish citizen in a new way, eliminating the social injustice (such as hunger, that ghost of the famine) in the country. Teddy identifies with the former option and Damien with the latter. Their inevitable confrontation is thus set up.

With the establishment of a truce and the signing of a treaty, the Irish finally are given their own freedom albeit with certain provisions and limitations. Teddy finds these limitations necessary, while Damien deplores them. When Teddy becomes the local head of the Irish Free State forces, Damien joins the new Irish resistance, which pits the brothers against each other. Damien speaks out in church during Mass, critizing the Church’s lack of backbone and manipulation, while Teddy supports the Chuch’s belief in the new Irish government. Eventually, Damien is captured by Free State forces, and meets his brother in a jail cell. Teddy tells him he will be released for certain information, but Damien refuses to inform asking Teddy how he who killed Chris Reilly for informing could ever do that now.

So Damien is shot by the Free State forces. Teddy, broken over his lack of power to save his brother, seems to represent the broken Ireland that though free continues to fight with itself.

Nada - Anarchy as Alternative Reality

2009 June 25
by Zachary McCune
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Nada begins with a poetic invocation that translates roughly as follows:

This adventure is the fruition of the imagination, it is therefore not unimaginable

This invocation is meant to characterize the drama of the film, and it does. Taking place in something like an alternative reality (recognizably our own time and space, yet involving an unlikely event) Nada ponders a political situation through a hypothetical premise. It is an academic, particularly philosophical game, beginning “imagine if…” and ending once the political ballet has gone through its motions, arriving at a conclusion that seemed unlikely at the onset. In this way, Chabrol’s film is something of a trial. On one side is the State, and on the other, revolutionaries/anarchists. Between them is human existence, and the question of how human life should be governed.

The Characters

Chabrol takes a great deal of time setting up and developing Nada’s characters. First, there is Andre Epaulard, the aging revolutionary back in Paris after years abroad. He is met by d’Abrey, a young, foolish drunk who lacks tact and abruptedly asks Andre to assist in the abductiong of the US Ambassador. Refusing, Epaulard shows himself to be somewhat tired of “the fight” and perhaps finally squaring himself to life within the status quo.

The next character is Treuffais, a Professor of Philosophy, who is introduced finishing a lecture with little interest from his pupils. His abstruse philosophy seems to be over the heads of all save himself, and he doesn’t seem to mind listening to himself speak. But after leaving the school house, we see the Professor’s brash side, as he threatens a fellow driver on the road when his 2CV craps out.

Buenaventura Diaz is our ultimate protagonist, and so Chabrol takes his time getting to him. An angsty, handsome young man, “Buen” appears to be a teenage hearthrob gone anarachist. He dresses like Malcolm McDowell in “If….” or the Invisible Man. He keeps his wallet down by his crotch, suggestively removing it when hassled by a police officer. He smokes his cigarettes slowly and deliberately. Most importantly he is forcefully commited to the mission, even attacking Andre to attempt to convince him to join the cause. When he realizes that the two are in fact old friends, all is forgotten and Andre joins up (although not before a potent considered-suicide:: see photos above).

Going over the plan, Buen takes Andre out to the home in the country that will be used to hold the US Ambassador. There Andre meets “Cash” a sexy young lady also commited to the cause but contributing her home rather than her time. Andre initially reacts poorly to Cash, but the flare is there for romance later in the film.

The Events

Like an American heist film, the revolutionaries (a.k.a the Nada group) plan out an abduction of the US Ambassador at a moment of little possible protection- his weekly hour in a high class brothel. But after stealing guns, Treuffais and Buen have a falling out, with Treuffais suddenly losing confidence in the practicality of radical terrorism and Buen accusing him of “Political Clap,” an indictment of the Professor’s mind over matter/inability to commit to realizing the ideas he espouses. Undettered, the plan goes on, flowing well as the Ambassador is abducted, and all threats to the mission seemingly neutralized. Only a secret film recording of the actions undoes Nada as a by-any-means-necessary Police Chief tracks them down, and massacres them.

Buen, Prophet or Propaganda?

Buen is the glue of the film, binding it together and making its plot stickier. He is easy to like, and hard to write off, he cares about his cause and his friends, believing so blindly in Nada’s mission that he sacrifices himself by running and screaming through an open field to warn his comrades of the police attack. For this, Buen takes the first bullet of the cause, spilling the first blood, and establishing his primacy as Nada’s chief member. It is Buen who kills the Ambassador, realizing the futility of surrender. It is Buen who escapes the massacre. It is Buen who rescues Treuffais from the sadistic Police Chief, sacrificing himself to set the Professor free.

Buen also gets to make a clear political message like no other character in the film. Under the premise of speaking to a recording, Buen reflects on the practicality of revolutionary terror. Like Treuffais he concludes that “terrorism and the state are two pincers of the same idiot trap,” and recognizing this connection, he recognizes the futility of Nada’s violence. Speaking directly to the camera, this scene has a frankness that is hard to shake. It’s directness suggests that it is the message of the film, and that it represents the political statement Chabrol wants to make with the film.

Buen’s decision to rescue the very man he accussed of being too politically philosophical suggests Buen’s redemption. When Buen hands the keys to Treuffais as he dies, it is a highly symbolic act representing the revolutionary passing a torch of social obligation back to the Intellectuals. Before this, Buen and Treuffais had represented a classic oppositional binary: the academic who thinks but does not act, and the revolutionary who acts but does not think. Their handshake with eyes met, for the transmission of the key, appears to be a union of this division, although we must remember that the academic ultimately is the one who walks away and tells the story. Does this mean the professor is the true site of revolution? Or just the ultimate point of progression?

Alternatively, we may need to consider Buen as a character who represents a romanticized rebel. It is not an accident that he appears to be Che Guevera re-incarnate. He is handsome and noble. He is easy to like, and easy to oppose to the ugly, fat, manipulative Police Chief. Though foils, Chabrol is clearly suggesting Buen over the Chief. In fact, the name Buenaventura means literally “Good Aventure” and the nickname “Buen” means simply good, clearly illustrating the good guy - bad guy binary. Does this mean that Buen is simply a propagandist imagining? A character whose likability advertises his cause?

Conclusion

Probably not. Because Buen is ultimately proven “wrong” about revolution, and because he returns to Treuffais, it seems that his ultimate value is that of a moral tale, a caution. His “good adventure” is actually misadventure, and though it turns out alright in the end, we are given a way as spectators and potential revolutionaries to sidestep all the violence and suffering of the film. We can go directly to academic discourse and philosophy as that is pointed out to be the answer.

Or is it? At the end of the film, Treuffais calls a journalist to tell Nada’s story. In this way, the story not philosophy is suggested to be the real way to start a cause. Perhaps then it is by developing mythologies and martyrs of revolution that change is effective and the state overthrown. Perhaps  by extension the cinema and its fictious stories can actually effect real revolution.

Investigation of a Citizen - The Dehabilitating Delerium of Power

2009 June 25
by Zachary McCune
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In Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, Elio Petri offers a portrait of power and its dehabilitating effect. The protagonist, a police chief (called “Doctor” in the subtitles) is power vivifed (and played by Gian Maria Volonte). His attitude represents a certain Italian male cliche; he is macho, he is loud, he is confident (to the point of cockiness), and is only content when his relationship to others is one of his dominance and their submission. In other words, he is a portrait of fascism, charged with “keeping the peace” but so egotistical that the order he represents cannot be dissolved from his person. He is authority. And he is “above suspicion.”

The film opens with violence. Its first dialog is a quick 1-2 between the Chief and his lover, Augusta Terzi. She asks him “How will you kill me today” perhaps punning on the idea that sexual orgasm is a “little death” and the Inspector responds “I’ll cut your throat.” Luring her into bed, he does just that. Emotionlessly, he then takes him time appreciating her body, taking a shower, and having a drink. Returning to her body, he begins to pluck a thread from his tie using her fingernail. He steps in her blood and stomps through the hallway. He attempts to implicate himself in the crime.

Interrogating Motives for Self-Incrimination

It is this self-incrimination that first piques the interest of the spectator in the motive of the film. Surely no one would do such a thing, the moviegoer likely imagines, questioning the reversal of the cinematically honored commit-a-crime-then-attempt-to-escape-fault dynamic. Consciously attempting just the opposite, one immediately begins seeking a motive, a motive that is hinted at by the film’s title but only fully revealed by engaging in a character study of the Police Inspector. We discover his pride, we discover his dedication to his job, we see his drive, we see his hunger for power and his manipulation of his station. We see his sadistic play with Augusta. We see Augusta’s effect on him. We see her offer and prompt his corruption: “run through the red light” she tells him at one point. He does it, after much resistance, and is caught by the police only to reveal his position and escape unscathed. The thrill fills him. He increases his hunger to manipulate his power as that power increases.

The Question of Vulnerability

A second plot/context runs alongside the dehabilitation of the Police Inspector. This is the student uprising and revolutionary culture in the city that the Inspector has been charged to put down. At the crossroads of the murder inquiry and student uprising, the Inspector becomes caught between the two. He has gained further position and power by being elevated to be in charge of the student rebellion, but this power causes his interest in testing it. He needs to know he is secure, to “prove it” as he explains in a recording. The Inspector needs to test his invulnerability.

Of course it is in testing this invulnerability that the Inspector becomes vulnerable. Challenged by the uprising, Volonte’s character is slowly undone by his own pride and corruption. The investigation, which at first the Inspector controlled, escapes his control and comes back towards him. The uprising distracts him from driving the inspection, and allows it to circle back towards him. Not that he does much to fend it off. To the contrary, he invites back towards himself, by making rogue phonecalls he knows will be tapped, or buying ties he knows will be tracked, or by even allowing the inspector to search his apartment for clues. In short, the Inspector seems to be seeking the line between responsibilty and invulnerability, pushing the inspection towards him as he seeks the critical threshold of his political immunity. This excites him. He enjoys it throughout most of the film as though it is a game of sorts. He smiles. He dresses up. He re-incriminates himself when the inspection moves from him. When their is an opportunity for the inquiry to indict another man, he blows the police’s flimsy excuse.

A Death Wish?

This could be the Inspector’s own death-wish, his own permutation of the erotic fetish exhibited by Augusta in her penchant for pretending to be dead or a suspect requiring interrogation. Clearly, the Inspector has some psychological conditions. He seems desparate to be caught or even accused, as he begs several characters in the film to accuse him. Again, these could simply be moments for him to once again demonstrate his power and be re-affirmed, but this is also a sort of Freudian death-wish- an adrenaline addiction, or a fascination in the experience of being accused, the position he puts others in, but never falls into himself.

The Crack-Up

Ultimately, the inspector “cracks up” recanting to his fellow officers, and shouting his guilt despite their disinterest in arresting him. His crack-up appears to come when he finally meets a foil, Antonio Pace, who was another lover of Augusta’s and represents the head of the radical students rising against him and his order. When Pace says that he has concluded the Inspector’s guilt, he does not fall into the Police power trap, and accuse him. Instead, Antonia says that knowing the guilt of the Inspector essentially puts Volonte’s character “in his power.”

Power: The Essential Resource of Political Cinema

Power is the key to this entire film, as Petri frames the characters and their relationships as imbalanced power dynamics, always having a dominant and a submissive. The Inspector expects to have the upper hand in all relatioships save his relationship to his superior, the Police Commissioner. In fact, we see the first evidence of the Inspector’s weakness when Augusta attempts to end their relationship saying he is “just a child” and is bad in bed, effectively emotionally castrating our protagonist. When Antonio Pace likewise rebels against the Inspector power and overthrows it, we see the weakness of the protagonist again, as his fragile disposition will not allow for him to be even breifly subservient. This in fact may represent the psychological motive needed to decode the entire film: afraid of ever being at someone else’s mercry, the Police Inspector kills his mistress to prove his invulnerability. He needs to know he will never be in that inferior position because he cannot stand it.

Conclusions

In all, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a superb film that presents a highly politicized feature without requiring hard historical basis. Like 1984, or Costas-Gavras Z, the film presents a strong political critique by inventing a political reality that does not explicitly exist, but exists in spirit. I think this film is not to be missed, and should be added to the Political Cinema Syllabus.

Notes on the DVD

The “Alfa Digital” Edition I watched had dramatic differences between the dubbing and the subtilting. In general, the subtitling made bizarre lingusitic choices (like substituting “Doctor” for Police Chief, or “try out” for “prove it”) and I would recommend the dubbing over the subtitles. Moreover, the subtitles dramatically confuse elements of the plot/reframe it.

Allonsanfan - A Character Study in Class Schizophrenia

2009 June 23
by Zachary McCune
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Like Bertolucci’s 1900, Allonsanfan presents a political indecisive protagonist, enmeshed in a highly politicized reality. Born a nobleman and turned republican, Fulvio (played by Marcello Mastroianni) emerges at the beginning of the film from a Royal prison. He is believed to have betrayed his own radical sect of republicans- the “sublime brothers” - by giving up the location of the sect’s leader. Proven innocent, despite torture and misgivings, the “sublime brothers” apologize and let him return to his ancestral manor, where a fever takes him and he barely survives. Welcomed and cared for by his family, despite his past, Fulvio begins to enjoy life again as a nobleman. He tells us that the fever has caused some changes in him, and one may see the fever as a symbol of his maturation. One side of the fever is passionate (feverish) devotion to overthrowing the political order of Italy, on the other side, his calm and collected wish to live a life of peace and tranquilty with his son and lover/wife. In short, Fulvio is restored by his family’s care to the very system he had spited. Visually transformed (shaved and dressed anew) Fulvio appears to have been reborn.

A Returning Past

But Fulvio is unable to escape his past. Indeed, when his former lover, and mother to his child arrives unexpectedly, he becomes cold and distant understanding his precarious position between two worlds. On the one hand, Fulvio has been welcomed back into the system he had sought to undo, and on the other, he cannot/will not be let go of by the radical group he supported and knows too much about. In short, he is caught between the two societies that formed who he is.

Committed to Both/Neither Side

Fulvio is unable to commit to either side. Instead, he plays along with both, pretending to be radical and in support of the cause when he is cornered by the brothers from time to time, and simultaneously, more than happy to become rich and bourgeoisie whenever possible. He is really not entirely indecisive, as it is clear that he wishes to err on the side of comfortable nobility and is most happy when playing the rich man, but he never tells off his radical friends. In fact, Fulvio’s sole answer to the dilemma of class and political orientation, is to dream of travelling to America, absolving his problem by running away from it.

The Dream of an American Family

Fulvio is pre-occupied by a dream of a family. When his lover/wife dies, he finds his child, Massimiliano, and imagines raising him alone. When he kills a Sublime Brother to escape his own non-commital to the movement, he seduces the victim’s wife, and dreams of living with her and his son in America, a full family romance.

Drifting

Like a piece of driftwood, taken by the tide, Fulvio drifts foolishy through the film, flailing at opportunities to betray his radical brothers, and thus escape their doomed destiny, but unable to even escape them. He is continually re-found by the brothers when he leaves them, and is drugged and brought to the South of Italy for their great insurrection plan when he wishes for nothing of the sort.

The Coat Half-On

Ultimately, he is caught in his own inability to get out of the way of politics or to commit to a side in the very class oriented film. Betraying his radical brothers for the Italian army, Fulvio takes of the signature red coat of the revolutionary and avoids their massacre. But when he is told by Allonsanfan, a comrade, that the brothers were welcomed not betrayed, Fulvio foolishly thinks he should put the coat back on and join them, and which point he is shot, symbolically with the coat half-on.

Psychedelic Cinema

The film is shot in a very curious/bizarre style, which occasionally  borders on the psychedelic. For instance, early in the film, Fulvio eats dinner with his family disguised as a priest. Told of himself, he recalls the colors he associated with his siblings (see photos), which are suddenly vividly portrayed by the film for seemingly no good reason. Another similar scene is the “toad sequence” where Fulvio terrifies his son back into bed by telling a nasty story about an evil toad, and then seeing the toad himself in the janitor who has come to wake him up. To some degree, this “toad sequence” is symbolic about Fulvio’s character- the toad that has possessed his body, as he tells his son, representing the split personality and contradictory interests of our protagonist.

Conclusions

A strange film, Allonsan seems contemporary in its allegorical presentation of the socially divided man as a man who cannot live. Like an admonition of hypocritical politicians everywhere, Allonsanfan may signify the dangers of being on both sides at the same time. Reduced simply “if you have the jacket half-on, you will still be killed, but you will never know what your stood for.”