"What precautions should we have taken to avoid this historical collapse, this coma, this volitalization of the real? Have we made an error? Has the human race made some error, violated some secret, committed some fatal imprudence? It is as vain to ask such questions as it is to ponder on the mysterious reasons why a woman has left you: nothing could have changed in any case."
—Jean Baudrillard, “Ecstasy and inertia,” Fatal Strategies
In Robert Kramer’s Ice, a revolutionary outfit battling the powers-that-be on the streets of Manhattan hide their weapons in clay and in the giant heads of papier-mâché puppets. From artistic commitment to political galvanization to violent uprising: it is this path, perhaps, that most distinguishes the era of Kramer’s film from today.
Yet the social turmoil that might trigger such a transformation in an artist is ever with us, and the “Cinema of Resistance” series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center gathers this work and other radical responses on film. Masao Adachi, director of one featured selection, Prisoner/Terrorist (07), is a filmmaker dearly aware of the consequences of political escalation, restricted from leaving Japan for his involvement with the United Red Army. As seen in Philippe Grandrieux’s It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, the old man is like a ghost returning again and again to remind his country of their origins, as they (and the rest of us) continue down a shared road to ruin.
The protagonist of Adachi’s Prisoner/Terrorist, captured after an airport shooting-spree, intends this suicide mission to bring about worldwide insurrection. He christens himself “No Name” during a brutal interrogation, leaping at the chance to kill himself with a revolver given to him by his government captors—but the gun is empty. Adachi’s movie flows from violence and subjugation to brief moments of reflection, in a careful juxtaposition of ideals and the messy practicality of realizing them, of the beauty of revolution and the absurd optimism at its heart. The result is a nasty piece of work, photographed in grubby consumer-grade digital video, which, like Adachi’s AKA Serial Killer (69) with its rich Kodachrome color, evokes the home movie aesthetic of its day.
Chained in the dark in a metal box of a cell, the floor stained with vomit, No Name’s commitment to the cause of armed struggle is tested by physical ordeals. The constant artificiality of the movie—paper flowers, a clearly plastic grenade that fails to explode—has the feel of Passion Plays performed in devout neighborhoods during Easter and, like the sacrament wafers received by the faithful, Prisoner/Terrorist’s outré staging transubstantiates the laughably unconvincing into the very real. Adachi’s reckoning with the past is sorely personal, and he sees no other means of rousing a contemporary audience besides these pummeling dialectics.
Questions of filmmakers’ proximity to or involvement in their subjects’ causes are central to Underground, the 1976 film co-directed by Emilio de Antonio, Haskell Wexler, and Mary Lampson. A history of the militant leftist group the Weathermen, told mostly by the group’s members themselves, it’s a jagged documentary illustrated with footage of protests turned violent, thick flames exploding in the jungles of Vietnam, dissidents and bureaucrats speechifying. The camera tilts at one point to reveal the countless floors of a skyscraper where a bomb has recently been detonated, and a stacked list of the Weathermen’s militant actions—stink-bombing a dinner party hosted by the Rockefellers, breaking Timothy Leary out of prison—might reach just as high.
Filmed in an undisclosed location, the interviewees’ faces obscured, their articulate answers to the filmmaker’s questions make at least as much of an impression as their showmanship. Hiding behind a thin screen of cloth they appear as murky shadows of people, Bernadine Dohrn’s bright orange sweater still visible. That screen and the coarse 16mm cinematography give the image the feeling of a worn tapestry, or swamp water.
Occupy Wall Street and Beyond
In an altogether separate but equally perplexing setup Wexler, operating the camera, photographs a mirror reflecting himself, Lampson and de Antonio, with the subject-collaborators sitting on the floor in front of them. The camera zooms in and out, from a wide shot where the edges of the mirror are visible, to medium close-ups of the backs of the Weathermen’s heads. De Antonio sits on the right of the frame, blinking gnomically, usually only half-looking in the direction of whoever’s talking. These formal contortions become more insistently subjective as the movie progresses, a reflexive picking apart of where and how theory becomes lifestyle (or documentary praxis).
The current decade is represented in a program of shorts highlighting Occupy Wall Street, specters of the past and big-eyed hopes for the future joined together and, at least for the moment, become flesh and blood. The first of these, dedicated to Dziga Vertov, tours the Vertovian modern marvel of Times Square on November 15, 2011, Occupy’s “Global Day of Action. The seat-of-the-pants montage contrasts dueling strains of the democratic unconscious, electronic billboards hawking video games and mobile devices, and homemade signs carried by the protesters battling in a free-speech free-for-all. “Great Times Are Waiting” shout the billboards. “I Awoke In A Sweat From The American Dream” reads a young woman’s cloth banner, which sways gently in the wind.