A recent series at Anthology Film Archives paid tribute to critic, film programmer, festival juror, professor, and cinéaste extraordinaire Amos Vogel, who passed away last April at 91. Founder of Cinema 16, co-founder of the New York Film Festival, and longtime contributor to Film Comment, Vogel is still best known for his hugely influential, woefully out-of-print 1974 book Film As a Subversive Art, which provided the rubric for Anthology’s programs. In keeping with the book’s preoccupation with radicalism in all its cinematic forms, the two films shown on March 13 constituted an accidental coupling connected by counterculture: Jean-Daniel Pollet’s exceedingly rare 1970 vision of agitprop apocalypse, Le Sang, and Zelimir Zilnik’s pitch-black Communist comedy Early Works, from 1969.
The 35mm print of Le Sang that was exhibited is the only one in existence, and the screening marked only the second time the film has ever been shown in North America (and perhaps the last). The tale of a band of quasi-hippie nomads and their odyssey through a post-something wasteland in search of the sea, Le Sang is Pollet’s perverse take on the road movie, and an example of his tendency to make poetic films that prize visual impact over all else. Vogel in Film As a Subversive Act classifies the film under “Trance and Witchcraft,” calling it “an almost completely successful example of visual cinema at its finest.” Set in a barren landscape of sand, stone, and the occasional open field, that suggests Philippe Garrel’s Inner Scar as much as it does a bad peyote trip, it’s like a more laconic El Topo, with numerous scenes of veritable animal slaughter that make the notorious bull beheading of Apocalypse Now look like Bambi. But despite the film’s hallucinatory visual imagination, its frustratingly abstract vision of a dehumanized future remains emotionally hollow.
Pollet and company obviously fancy themselves revolutionaries, though their precise target is unclear. Dialogue among the motley characters is comprised of screams, grunts, and warbles, occasionally punctuated by calls to arms and provocative sloganeering that often break the fourth wall to berate the viewer. (One particularly graphic animal throat-slitting is accompanied by the statement, “All the boars drugged and killed for the image, by the image, will start a rebellion,” which is soon followed by “Why always corpses on screen and never in the theater?”) The film keeps up appearances of raging against everything, taking visual potshots at religion and embracing primitivism in defiance of modernity, while grabbing every opportunity to offend its audience’s sensibilities by way of grisly animal sacrifice. All of which doesn’t cover up the fact that it is an exercise in artifice—phony subversion in the service of nothing.
Early Works, which won the Golden Bear at the 19th Berlin International Film Festival in 1969 before fading into obscurity, presents its themes of revolution and dehumanization far more literally and effectively than its French counterpart. The film, Zilnik’s first feature, exemplified the main tendencies of the Yugoslav Black Wave—the political film movement then at its artistic and commercial peak and initially established by such filmmakers as Dusan Makavejev (writer-director of W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, a still from which graces the cover of Film as a Subversive Art), Zika Pavlovic, Sasa Petrovic, and Mica Popovic—and prompted Vladimir Jovicic to write “The Black Wave in Our Cinema,” the 1969 article that marked the beginning of the country’s official counterattack. A deft satire of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czeckoslovakia, Early Works uses its loose plot to allegorize Communism’s dark side, here presented as the tragic outcome that inevitably arises when the idealism of high-minded ideology is betrayed by the reality of fallible human nature.
A road movie of a different sort, Early Works chronicles the maladroit misadventures of four young revolutionaries, three boys and a girl named Jugoslava, who leave home to become political missionaries. They wander across the countryside, pick cabbage, shoot guns (inaccurately), make Molotov cocktails (poorly), and spread the revolutionary gospel (only to be met with a lack of resources and dispiritingly poor morale), all in a failed attempt to awaken the conscience within the working class and peasants.
A sharp tonal shift follows, however, as sexual politics come to the forefront and the proceedings turn from humorous to disturbing. The boys fall in love with Jugoslava, who rebuffs each of them in turn (as she is still entirely consumed by the political fervor that initially set their journey in motion), resulting in an increasingly tense love quadrangle. In the startling climax, the boys’ emotions triumph over their political ideals, and they punish Jugoslava for not “sharing the wealth.” They attempt to rape her, she resists, they shoot her, and, in a grand ironic expression, throw a Communist flag over their handiwork before blowing it up with their first successful Molotov cocktails of the film—dignifying their base, human aggression by dressing it up as a revolutionary act.
Artifacts of a time and place long gone—a Europe variously excited and repulsed by revolutionary possibility—the two films are emblematic of the zeitgeist from which they were born. Yet, in their zeal, these revolutionaries also sow the very seeds of their movement’s decay and demise. In Le Sang the radicals’ nihilism drives the spirit of revolution into its grave; Early Works uses the literal rape and murder of Jugoslava as a thinly veiled metaphor whereby revolutionary love of one’s country serves not to awaken the nation to a higher political calling but actively destroy it.