Figures of Dissent: Robert Kramer

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21 February 20:00, KASKcinema, Gent. A Courtisane event.
introduced by Stoffel Debuysere

“Different experience requires different camera movements. To get the movements in a right relation with what’s there you have to really know what you’re seeing. (…) And while this movie making was yet another way of creating temporary communities to live inside of, the shelters and campsites that I need so much, it is not the same project as the one that went before.“
– Robert Kramer

“I’m from NYC. The 50s were bad. I got reborn in the 60s. I left the states at the end of the 70s. I’ve been living around, mostly based in Paris, and I make movies.” 
This is how Robert Kramer (1939 –1999) introduced himself in a letter he wrote, shortly before his death, to Bob Dylan, who he considered as one of the “voices in his head”, accompanying him throughout his life. To Kramer, the experience of the sixties has always been the touchstone for his live and work, the moment when he chose sides: first as a journalist in Latin-America and a community worker in Newark, later as a filmmaker and a member of the Newsreel collective. Again and again Kramer searched out the battlegrounds: in Venezuela, Vietnam, Portugal, Angola, but also closer to home, in the heart of the radical movements working revolution and challenging the political structures of the United Stated at the time. Each time Kramer found himself committed to the search for dissenting forms of community, of which he himself depicted the breakdown in Milestones (1975), an unsettling self-portrait of his “lost” generation. After moving to Europe Cinema would more than ever become his true home territory: working from his base in Paris, he produced more than twenty films, varying in length, genre, medium and degree of achievement. Armed with his camera, Kramer not only kept on exploring the contours and boundaries of the world, but also of himself, as critical cartographer of a fast changing society, rebounding between private and public, interior and exterior, choise and necessity. In some ways, the films in this programme can be considered as the milestones of his work: three films at the same time reflecting the trajectory of his own history and that of a place he cherished deeply: Vietnam.

Robert Kramer, Norman Fruchter, John Douglas (Newsreel Collective)
People’s war

1969, 16mm, b/w, English spoken, 40’

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“To all filmmakers who accept the limited, socially determined rules of clarity, of exposition, who think that films must use the accepted vocabulary to ‘convince’, we say essentially: your sense of order and form is already a political choice – don’t talk to me about ‘content’ – but if you do, I will tell you that you cannot encompass our ‘content’ with those legislated and approved senses, that you do not understand it if you treat it that way. There is no such thing as revolutionary content, revolutionary spirit, laid out for inspection and sale on the bargain basement counter. We want to make films that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that do not soft-sell.” (RK about Newreel Collective)

Robert Kramer
Point de départ

1993, 35mm, color, English, French, Vietnamese with French subtitles, 83′

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“Many of the ideas that some people died for have been forgotten. It is necessary to read through the pages of recent history. The ‘starting place’ is really after the film. It is now. I could have made this film in another place. The most important thing was not to talk particularly or exclusively about Vietnam, but was, above all, this idea of ‘starting place.’ Because that’s the way things are, we have to start out from a look at what we have experienced over the last thirty years.” (RK)

Robert Kramer
SayKomSa

1998, video, color, English, French, Vietnamese with French subtitles, 20′

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“Gray Paris street. In the apartment there are gifts from old friends in Vietnam: reminders of a different history.
But the time is now, 1998: the market economy, that’s our common fate. A construction-site on the edges of the West lake in Hanoi. This lake in the centre of Hanoi is being gradually walled in by huge modern hotels. The village is disappearing.
Everybody knows: it’s just a matter of money now. Who’s rich and who’s poor, who can and who can’t. That’s how it is: c’est comme ca.” (RK)

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

See also Kramer’s statement on Newsreel and his text Snap Shots. His letter to Dylan can be found here.
Also read Adrian Martin‘s wonderful essay on Kramer’s essay films.

Kramer on Newsreel

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by Robert Kramer

Published in Film Quarterly, winter 1968, as part of a special feature on the Newsreel filmmaking collective. As found on Donal Foreman’s blog. Kramer’s “Vietnam Trilogy”, consisting of ‘People’s war’ (1969), ‘Point de départ’ (1993), and ‘SayKomSa’ (1998) will be shown at KASKcinema on February 21, as part of the “Figures of Dissent” series.

We began by trying to bridge the gap between the states of mind and ways of working that we were accustomed to as film-makers, and the engagement/daily involvement/commitments of our political analysis and political activity. This had immediate implications—not only for our film-making, but for interpretations of what, as film-makers, as people in a struggle against established forms of power and control, against established media of all forces, we had to do with or without cameras.

In regard to our films. I think we argue a different hierarchy of values. Not traditional canons of “what is professional,” what is “comprehensive and intelligent reportage,” what is “acceptable quality and range of material.” No. Nor do we accept a more sophisticated argument about propaganda in general: that if the product isn’t sold well, if the surface of the film (grainy, troublesome sound, soft-focus, a wide range of maladies that come up when you are filming under stress) alienates, then the subject population never even gets to your “message” about the product—they just say, “Fuck that, I’m not watching that shit.”

The subject population in this society, bombarded by and totally immersed in complex, ostensibly “free” medcia, has learned to absorb all facts/information relatively easily. Within the formats now popularised by the television documentary, you can lodge almost any material, no matter how implicitly explosive, with the confidence that it will neither haunt the subject population, nor push them to move—in the streets, in their communities, in their heads. You see Cleaver or Seale on a panel show, and they don’t scare you or impress your or make you think as they would if you met them on the street. Why? Because they can’t get their hands on you? Partly, sure. (Fear and committed thought exist in terms of the threat that power will be used against you—in terms of the absolute necessity of figuring out what has to be done—noe in terms of some vague decision to “think it through” in isolation.) But also, because their words are absorbed by the format of the “panel show,” rational (note well: ostensibly rational) discussion about issues that we all agree are important and pressing, and that we (all good liberal viewers) are committed to analysing. Well: bullshit. The illusion of the commitment to analyse. The illusion of real dissent. The illusion of even understanding the issues. Rather, the commitment to pretend that we’re engaging in reality.

OK. At the point when you have considered this argument then you start to make films with different priorities, with shapes justified in a different way. You want to make films that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that do not soft-sell, but hopefully (an impossible ideal) explode like grenades in peoples’ faces, or open minds like a good can opener. We say: “The things you see in these films are happening at this moment, they are our ‘news,’ they are important to us and do not represent the droppings of a few freaks, but the activity of a growing wave of people, youir children who were fighting the pigs at Columbia, your brothers who deserted the army, your former slaves who will not now accept your insufficient reparations, etc., etc. You know this reality. You know enough to know that this is real—now deal with it, because soon it’s going to come to deal with you, in one way or another.” The effect of our films is more like seeing 250 Black Panthers around the Oakland Court House, or Columbia students carrying on the business of revolt at Kirk’s desk, or Free Men occupying the streets of Berkely, than listening to what some reporter tells us about what these people might have said, and how we can understand “rebellion” psychologically. We strive for confrontation, we prefer disgust/violent disagreement/painful recognition/jolts—all these to slow liberal head-nodding and general wonderment at the complexity of these times and their being out of joint.

We want a form of propaganda that polarises, angers, excites, for the purpose of discussion—a way of getting at people, not by making concessions to where they are, but by showing them where you are then forcing them to deal with that, bringing out all their assumptions, their prejudices, their imperfect perceptions.

We shoot as best we can—but we shoot what’s important to us, what meets our perceptions of our lived reality; we cut according to our priorities, our ideologies, not “to make it plain and simple to them.” Not to present a “line.” Not to present the lived reality as less complex than it really is. Not to enter into that sterile game: modulating our emotions and intensities and intelligences in some vain hope that by speaking your language your way we can persuade you. No, we know the effective outcome of that: only the acceptance of another of the subtle forms of domination and control. Now we move according to our own priorities, and we are justified in this by objective conditions. Five years ago, for example, such a decision would have been suicidal. Our movement was only emerging—few people knew anything about it—few people were involved. But now, all our audiences (and our audiences represent the full spectrum of the society) know the essence of what we’re talking about. They read it every day in every paper digested and shaped to their preconceptions. So now we present it to them in its nakedness, in our true understanding of it, not vitiated by analyses and “in-depth studies” that we do not accept, but just exactly what counts from our point of view. The established media have done the job of popularising: now we must specify and make immediate; convert our audiences or neutralise them; threaten.

Our films remind some people of battle footage: grainy, camera weaving around trying to get the material and still not get beaten/trapped. Well, we, and many others, are at war. We not only document that war, but try to find ways to bring that to places which have managed so far to buy themselves isolation from it.

So, to return to the issue of propaganda. Our propaganda is one of confrontation. Using film—using our voices with and after films—using our bodies with and without cameras—to provoke confrontation. Changing minds, altering consciousness, seems to us to come through confrontations, not out of sweet/reasonable conversations that are one of the society’s modes of absorbing and disarming dissent and movement, of giving that illusion that indeed we are dealing with “the issues.” Therefore we keep moving. We keep hacking out films, as quickly as we can, in whatever way we can.

To all film-makers who accept the limited, socially determined rules of clarity of exposition, who think that films must use the accepted vocabulary to “convince,” we say, essentially: “You only work, whatever your reasons, whatever your presumed ‘content,’ to support and bolster this society; you are part of the mechanisms which maintain stability through re–integation; your films are helping to hold it all together; and, finally, whatever your other descriptions, you have already chosen sides. Dig: Your sense of order and form is already a political choice. Don’t talk to me about “content”—but if you do, I will tell you that you cannot encompass our “content” with those legislated and approved senses, that you do not understand it if you treat it that way. There is no such thing as revolutionary content, revolutionary spirit, laid out for inspection and sale on the bargain basement counter.

(image taken from Ice, made by Robert Kramer and the Newsreel Collective in 1970)

Venturas Letter

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By Jacques Rancière

Originally published as ‘La Lettre de Ventura’ in Trafic #61, spring 2007. Pedro Costa will participate in the next DISSENT! session in February 2013.

A change in dimensions: this is how we could sum up the novelty of Colossal Youth, the third and most beautiful film of the trilogy that Pedro Costa has dedicated to the inhabitants of the shanty town of Fontainhas, which has now been destroyed. In the beginning, there are high walls with grey metallic hues glistening in the half-light. We see objects passing through a window before crashing on the ground. In the next shot, a woman stands beneath us, appearing as an ancient fury, holding a knife that also seems to serve as a torch, lighting up the dark. She speaks, like one recites a monologue, to recount how she, when still a child in Cape Verde, would go in the water without fear of sharks and without responding to the boys on the shore, who would carefully mutter words of love. Before long the two sequences will find their “explanation”: the woman, Clothilde, has put her husband, the old construction worker Ventura, at the door, and thrown his furniture out of the window. But this is not the essential thing: it is rather to be found in the space constructed by this ouverture, in the tonality that it brings to the story. We are apparently very far from the space and the characters of In Vanda’s Room. In this film, the camera edged its way through the maze of small streets, finding shelter in the corners of narrow rooms, dwelling at the height of its characters, who were half asphyxiated, discussing their lives inbetween two doses of drugs. Here the space has opened up, the camera aimed at the top of this high walled building that looks like some ancient or medieval fortress and from where this woman appears, with a savage appearance, a noble way of talking, and a theatrical intonation that brings to mind Clytemnestra or Medea. Ossos and In Vanda’s Room presented us with young marginals sorting out their lives day by day. Colossal Youth is built around two mythological figures coming from far away, from the dawn of time. First of all Clotilde, who we won’t see anymore, but who continues to haunt the words of the chased away husband, who asks his large family for a place to stay and at one point tells his “daughter” Bete how he had tamed the wild child one independence day when she had (falsely) sung a hymn to liberty; then there’s Ventura, figure of a fallen lord, as if exiled from his African kingship, having become unfit to work due to an injury and unfit for social life due to a head fracture. Sort of a sublime wanderer, inbetween Oedipus en Lear, but also between the Fordian heroes Tom Joad and Ethan Edwards.

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Tragedy has thus invaded the domain of the chronicle. In Vanda’s Room struggled, shot after shot, to release the poetic potential of the sordid decor and the smothered speech of wasted lives, to reconcile, beyond every form of esthetisation of misery, the artistic potentialities of a space with the capacities of the most displaced individuals to regain their own destiny. Its emblematic image was given by this episode where one of the three squatters persisted, out of an esthetical concern, to scrape away the stains from a table destined to be squashed by the jaws of the demolition machines. But the figure of Ventura straightaway resolves the problem: here there is no misery to be elevated by the camera. Between the camera and Vanda, now a mother revalidating from detoxication, or Nurro, who has become an honorable employee, intercedes Ventura, figure of tragic destiny, standing out from the white walls of new appartement buildings and the images of televison series. He is not a disabled unemployed whose difficult reintegration we get to follow, but a prince in exile precisely refusing all “social” rehabilitation. This is strikingly illustrated by two episodes of the film, two incursions of Ventura in a space where he is displaced, two confrontations with blood brothers who have played the game of integration. First the visit to the new apartment where the municipal office worker, in front of the window, lists up the advantages that the cultural and sports facilities in the area provide to Ventura’s “wife” and “children”. Ventura, dark silhouet with his back turned to us, slowly lifts a majestic arm towards the ceiling: “there are spiders everywhere”, he simply says. With one gesture the relation between the social housing administrator and the obligee is turned around. In his attitude, the old builder has mobilized the two sciences separated by tradition: the art of means, the mechanical art of the building constructor, and the art of ends, the art of one who knows how to inhabit the buildings. The white uninhabitable walls overflown with the noise of Vanda’s television are in contrast with the grey walls of this shanty where Bete – who hasn’t moved yet – and Ventura, with his head on the knees of his “daughter”, decipher the fantastic drawings created by the hazards of living and the mold of the building itself: the art of living of the poor ties in with this reading of aleatory figures celebrated by the painter par excellence, Leonarda da Vinci.

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This relation between great art and the art of living of the poor is the whole subject of the film. It finds its spectacular illustration in another episode, the visit to the museum, as far as we can talk of a visit: the film actually transports us without narrative transition to a room in the Gulbenkian Foundation, where we find Ventura leaning against a wall, between Rubens Portrait of Helena Fourment and Van Dyck’s Portrait of a man. In silence, an employee of the museum, black just like the city employee, signs Ventura to leave, before taking a handkerchief and eracing the traces the intruder left on the ground, just like the housing agent before him erased the trace of his face on the white wall of the new appartement. Later he comes back to Ventura, who’s sitting in a rather meditative fashion on a Regency sofa, and makes him leave, still in silence, through the service door. The employee is happy with his work, far away from the cosmopolitan and crooked wildlife of supermarkets. Here, he quietly says to Ventura, we find peace, except when people like us come here, which is rare. Ventura does not reply to his words. Seated above him without looking at him, underneath some garden trees, he talks about the country where he comes from, of the swamp it used to be and the frogs swarming on the domain he has excavated and refurbished, and where he has put gravel and lawn, before pointing with an imperial hand gesture to the place where he fell off a scaffold one day. It’s not about opposing the sweat and pain of museum constructors with the esthetical pleasure of the rich. It’s about confronting history to history, space to space, speech to speech. The treatment of speech actually ruptures with the two preceding films. The fiction of Ossos was under the sign of a certain mutism, that of Tina, the young mother, overtaken by the life she had passed on. In Vanda’s Room assumed, with the appearance of a documentary, the tone of a conversation between four walls. Colossal Youth installs breaks between two different regimes of speech. On one hand, there is the conversation continuing in Vanda’s new room, the room of the mother who’s become slightly more affluent and “bourgeois”, cluttered up by this conjugal bed with supermarket design, continuously filled with the sound of this television set of which we don’t see the screen. Vanda talks about her difficult return to the norm on the same familiar tone as before. Ventura does not converse. Often he remains silent, imposing the somber mass of his silhouet or the force of a look that perhaps judges what it sees or wanders elsewhere, but in any case resists all interpretation. The speech emerging from this silence, seemingly feeding from it, varies between the lapidary formula, similar to an epitath or a hemistich of a tragedy, and lyrical diction. It is this modus that he evokes, behind an interlocutor he doesn’t look at, his departure from Cape Verde on a big plane on 19 August 1972, reminding us of another departure, the one of a poet and his two friends in a small car, on 31 August 1914 *.

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Hearing this well-learned speech seemingly emanating directly from the heart of a being and his history, rather than the lips of a speaker, it is difficult not to think about the art of the filmmakers Pedro Costa has dedicated a film to, Danièle Huillet and Jean Marie Straub. They transformed Vittorini’s narratives in oratorio scores to put them in the mouth of men of the proud people who, while vocalizing the text without looking at any interlocutor, attested to the identical capacity of the poor with work made by skillful hands, noble language and the construction of a new common world. Here we feel, more than in any other film by Pedro Costa, the echo of the cinema lesson of the Straubs. Yet the film presents a dispositive of an ensemble that is different from the poetics and politics of the Straubs. The nobleness of the life of anyone is conveyed here in two different ways: on one hand the conversational modus of In Vanda’s Room, on the other the “literary” modus, which is well suited for this mythical space set out by Ventura’s wanderings between the slums and the new houses, between past and present, Africa and Portugal. But the great speech of which Ventura has the monopoly, at the price of slightly subduing Vanda and her words, is itself constructed in the patchwork modus. This is attested to by the wonderful episode with variations of the letter that gives the film its refrain: a letter addressed by the emigrant to the one who has stayed, at the same time speaking of the everyday of work or suffering, and love promising the loved one one hundred thousand cigarettes, a car, a dozen fancy dresses and a threepenny bouquet. Ventura modules the letter’s recitation in another way in order to teach it to Lento, the illiterate. At times he pronounces it as if lost in his daydreams, at other times with the authority of a teacher hammering the words in an unwilling head. In a sense, this is all the property Ventura has: the literary grandeur of the autodidact who “learns new words every day, beautiful words for you and me alone made to fit us both, like fine silk pyjamas.” Yet Pedro Costa has composed it from two different sources: real letters from emigrants – similar to those of which he was once the mailman and which have led him to Fontainhas – and a letter from a poet, one of the last letters Robert Desnos sent to Youki from the camp of Flöha. The words of the French poet who died in Terezin blend with those of the letters of immigration, to compose a partition of the same sort that Danièle Huillet and Jean Marie Straub distilled from Vittorini’s texts. Lento will never learn the letter, which he doesn’t need anymore anyhow, but in one of the houses devastated by fire, Ventura the madman, the lord, will put, still without looking at him, his hand in his and grants him the tragical dignity, the right to cry for the misfortunes of his friend, just like his friend cries for his own.

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The difference in poetry is also a difference in politics. In order to affirm a political dignity of men of the people identical to their esthetical dignity, the Straubs have done away with the everyday misery of anguish and distress. Their workers and farmers offer us directly, in front of the only forces of nature and myth, some hours of communism, some hours of sensible equality. But Ventura, in spite of the film’s rousing title, does not propose any form of communism, past, present or to come. He remains the stranger untill the end, the one who comes from far away to attest to the possibility for each and every one of having a destiny, and being equal in his or her destiny. In the Straubs’ Vittorini films, the dialectical argument and the lyrical capacity was after all based on the collective epic of an eternal communism. In Pedro Costa’s work there is no epic unity: the political concern can not, in order to sing the communist glory, be dissociated from the laborious birth of any life. The capacity of the poor remains torn between Vanda’s familiair conversation and Ventura’s tragic soliloquy. Colossal Youth does not end with an open horizon of common adventure nor a closed fist of irreconciable rebelliousness. The film ends, like a pirouette, in Vanda’s room where Ventura, the man inventing his children, is assigned the role of babysitter. We can’t really make out if it’s him taking care of Vanda’s little girl, or if it’s the child looking over the dreams of a broken man. The faith in art attesting to the grandeur of the poor – the grandeur of whoever – shines here brighter than ever. But it no longer corresponds with the affirmation of a salute. Perhaps this turn is what has become of irreconciliation, of which Pedro Costa is today’s first poet.

* 1. Cf. Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘La petite auto’, Calligrammes, Gallimard, coll. ‘Poésie’, 1966, p. 67-68.

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Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translations).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

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Ventura’s Letter
English translation from the Cape Verdean Creole, corresponding to the subtitles on the Eureka! Edition of Colossal Youth

Nha cretcheu, my love,
being together again will brighten our lives for at least thirty years.
I’ll come back to you strong and loving.
I wish I could offer you a hundred thousand cigarettes, a dozen fancy dresses, a car, that little lava house you always dreamed of, a threepenny bouquet.
But most of all, drink a bottle of good wine and think of me.
Here it’s nothing but work.
There are over a hundred of us now.
Two days ago, for my birthday, I thought about you for a long while.
Did my letter arrive safely?
Still nothing from you.
Some other time.
Every day, every minute, I learn beautiful new words for you and me alone made to fit us both, like fine silk pyjamas.
Wouldn’t you like that?
I can only send you one letter a month.
Still nothing from you.
Some other time.
I often get scared building these walls.
me with a pick and cement, you with your silence, a pit so deep, it swallows you up.
It hurts to see these horrors that I don’t want to see.
Your lovely hair slips through my fingers like dry grass.
Often, I feel weak and think I’m going to forget you.
Ventura.

Snap Shots

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By Robert Kramer

Written in July 1997. French version was published in ‘Trajets : à travers le cinéma de Robert Kramer’, edited by Vincent Vatrican & Cédric Venail (Institut de l’image, 2001). Kramer’s “Vietnam Trilogy”, consisting of ‘People’s war’ (1969), ‘Point de départ’ (1993), and ‘SayKomSa’ (1998) will be shown at KASKcinema on February 21, as part of the “Figures of Dissent” series.

“After the events of the previous days, he already felt that in the new landscape around them humanitarian considerations were becoming irrelevant.
‘Doctor?’
‘Mr. Jordan, I daren’t be honest with myself. Most known motives are so suspect these days that I doubt whether the hidden ones are any better. All the same, I’ll try to get you to the beach.”
(The Drought, J. G. Ballard)

I know that it is about me and my movies, and I gave the editors, Vincent and Cedric, a list of friends and others who might eventually participate, but as I write here I haven’t read what’s in this book. What I hope is that there is material that describes the interchange between someone, one other person, one mind/body, and one of the movies. Something that happens in a specific time and place, to someone, and in front of a screen. An event that is singular, that, like a conversation, does happen in both directions, and whose existence is confirmed by the traces it leaves after. I dream of this relationship. I try as best I can to make it happen: that the movie slips into someone, as secretive and unexpected as the arrival of love or desire, or sometimes like a knife. That the movie infiltrates around the obstacles and expectations that increasingly dominate our internal landscape, that diffusing outward the movie escapes the given compartments that organize our experience, and squeeze that event into old and familiar (and therefore harmless) grooves. A movie, entertainment, a documentary, art, culture, militant: the names weight the thing down so that it can’t fly anymore. This is how we die.

Or so I was led to believe. I was led to believe that it was less interesting to tell someone something, than to create a space where the experience of it could be shared. Share our confusions and our curiosity, for example, make certain discoveries together. At any rate, I didn’t feel like I knew too many answers (the things you know for sure are so known you doubt they could have much value to anyone), so turning the questions around and around, watching their contures change with the light and time and distance, with the changing moods of looking, or the history around them, I was forced to accept that, having no message as such, I only had something to keep trying to live out. And that this was both a process and a method. I mean, there was an intention to try to live a certain way, and to let that lived life define the directions of the adventure. In a sense, I was just the cartographer of the expedition, I was only there to map the geography of the lands we crossed and tell the tale of the trip. I think of the lost chronicler of Hesse’s “Journey To The East,” or as Bichet, the painter-cameraman from Pontarlier in the Doubs said the other day, “you’re a tramp, boy, just a tramp!”

Which, when we pull back again to movies, means that they were always at least two things simultaneously, these movies. They are a way to go out there into that new geography each time, they are a means to leave, to break off, to escape, to change the air as surely as Ishmael knows to do it when he feels himself going stale and the violence rising in him, and he goes down to the sea, and the whaling ship that will take him off to Moby Dick. Movies are the means by which one packs one’s bag and walks away from everything that the room and habit and society and family represent. And then the movies are also like signposts, markers, milestones. They indicate that a life passed by there, that this is the sense that could be made of the experience, that the movie is a measure of the profitability of the experience, its intrinsic usefulness, and that in principle there is something here that is worth sharing together. From this point of view the movies are always two-things-in-one, and surely more.

I’m going to be 58.

I never thought I’d get to this age.

It’s true that at that time (I’m talking about the USA in the 50’s, but it could have been any time in our national history because that is our story and our contribution) there was an atmosphere of dying young, of “no way out” and “born to lose,” and many friends or heros I had did die young, trying to find a way out, pushing themselves too far, trying to change the world. But what I felt was not only about a menacing world and the real consequences of living dangerously. It was also a reflection of how few examples I had of anyone who had grown older well. I couldn’t visualize myself in a future because the world, and my elders, were so much what I did not want for myself. If that was what was going to happen to you, why do it? And oddly enough, that’s what the elders seemed to be saying all the time. They said, there is no way to resist the pressure and control of the design. This is life. There is no way to avoid being like us. Whatever way you jerk your life around you’re going to get worn down. You can’t avoid growing up, but beside being able to drink in the bars and drive a car, there’s nothing much to say for it. It’s a question of compromsing and making your peace with the deals. They seemed to say that, and much more that was too dark and soiled and disappointed to say. It was in their expressions and their gestures, in the unexcited way they were with eachother, in the very distance they took from the roles they were playing, or how old they seemed when they were not really so old. Death was in the air. Partly because it was a doctor’s house, yes, of course, but the talk of sickness and death and dying was more like a dirge for what happens to a life, and in the young boy who was always and dutifully listening, it surely raised a doubt as to whether there were not some things that were worse than death.

I’m talking about memories of 45 years ago.

I’ve tried, but they always come out the same.

I think of coins minted invariably from the same mold, legal tender, money of the realm: that’s how I paid my way and purchased my distance. Younder stands your orphan with his gun, crying like a fire in the sun….

We were standing there: high on a slope of industrial rubble, a slag heap of smoking metal, of bombed out ruins and rusting debris. It’s the 1950’s creeping into the 60’s, it’s the wasteland moving into the war zone, and behind us, right on our heels, there’s a curtain. Curtains of artifice and lies! Eisenhower theatre curtain, iron curtain, or their new media curtain with its unprecedented cool blue technological glow: it is their curtains thrown over the obscene mess they have made of the 20th century! And what is there of value behind that curtain? What can we make use of in all that history and culture? What can we scavage for ourselves there, or learn about finding a way out of here? Some people continue to look back, searching for scraps and bones and pieces of gristle, while the more radical ones say “there is nothing behind us anymore, there is no one to listen to and nothing to live up to. It’s up to us to figure out how to live.” The past doesn’t go away, it isn’t even past, but you could feel that used and misused experience coagulating, accumulating into a black hole of fabulous density: an invisible gravity that now sucks at our energy and drags us back into their known and predicted defeats.

The actual physical sensation that came from this experience of the weight of the past was a weariness unto death. It was not so much boredom as a frightening absence of energy. Something (perhaps history itself) had been used up, squandered, and the slang that says it best is wasted. Tired stoned or dead, you’re wasted. Wasted opportunities, like garbage. There were times when I did not think I could lift my hand off the surface of the desk. Those were my symptoms anyway, while others experienced the widest range of psychological disorders, including syndroms of doubt and disgust, self-hate, self-defeat, self-mutilation, suicide, etc., and a constant scrambling for the reasons why.

It is difficult to distinguish between the way one is formed by the life around one, and the form one gives to things just by thinking about them with the specific means one has at ones disposal. It is a vicious circle and surely no one escapes from their subjectivity. In the practise of a life, that subjectivity is what one has to work with. That is to say, what I saw is that I lived in a society that told itself alot of lies and lived by quite a few fictions. Like most young people this young nation was haunted by the imminence of death, obsessed by a sense of vulnerability, of fragility and transcience. Our power and position were precarious: everybody out there wanted to take away our new toys! The insecurity of the situation had each of us still trying to puff ourselves up to go out alone into that wildness of untamed land that we were forever claiming and conquering with our guns, as if the ritual of our national founding could never be allowed to end. This young nation, this USA, was a paper-thin veneer of history, a transparent membrane stretched over this vast continent of land stolen so recently from those who had lived there alone for tens of thousands of years. That’s how it looked.

The Beat poets had started laying down that other view of America, the underside and secret history, that I am describing here another way and from another class, and Dylan (who has sung most of what I ever wanted to say) was coming soon. And jazz. We were listening to jazz like you listen to a clandestine Radio Rebellion, and blues, and now rhythm’n blues. The music was, but even more pervasive and troubling was the very existence of black people in this closed and stuffy and thoroughly white banquet hall of the 50’s. They were kept segregated. They were kept apart, other. They were hasselled and harrassed, but stayed unknowable, cool in the face of a white power that had only adapted the habits of slave holding to the wage system. Because black people were kept apart from this USA, because they couldn’t buy in, perhaps they had been less poisoned. That was the instinctive flash. Perhaps they had remained more human. No one knew what the limits of their energy was, or where it might lead us, but the Black Belt South was there, and the ghettos were there in all the cities and towns of our wanderings, like immense and unmapped territories.

Sure, there were illusions here. But it was the instinctive start of building another view of things. And for this schoolboy who went down through the ghetto streets every day on the way to his white private school, who fought with black kids just because the lines got drawn first around race, and only later around class or religion: for that kid, the ghettos said what needed to be learned about the meaning of white skin, and the senseless privileges it bestowed upon me and all the other settlers, recently arrived on these shores or not.

Like all settler nations the States was obsessed by its identity because this identity is so illusive, intangible, and finally illegitimate. It was insecure about its place in the world, shakey and unconvincing as a world leader, and absolutely magnificent in its role as the shimmering, muscular summary of where Western Civilization had gotten us to. You could sing that to jazz.

“Did you believe this stuff?”

I did. I do. But it is not a question of belief,of argument, of opinion, that’s not what I’m interested in here. I am trying to describe an atmosphere and context. I am thinking about how you come to feel or see things, by what stages and in what order, and how absolutely one is enclosed in a capsule whose construction one hardly notices. I saw things this way: it is a matter of seeing, and of finding that no matter where you start or how you turn you are led back to variations on these same themes. Study only confirms the seeing and helps give name and body to things. A good psychoanalysis only deepens the texture and detail of the vision, and helps to eliminate the extraneous. This kind of seeing comes before politics, for example, before there is any practise of revolution. In fact, later, when revolutionary politics do arrive, they appear as a confirmation of what has been clearly seen for a very long time.

“You were just alienated.”

I was. I am. What interests me is what are the ingredients of that alienation? Why did it appear so widely then and with such interesting results? What kind of a motor is alienation? What kind of protection does it offer? What is the difference between alienation and immigration? What kind of a guide is it? What is it telling us about the holes in our lives? How useful is it, and how much does it only amputate your possibilities and keep you in the back of the bus?

And how much choice does one really have?

There is a kind of sadness. It has to do with subdued light, thick, expensive textured fabrics in shades of browns and beige, drapes for the windows and rugs covering out to the walls. Everything turned inward, away from the harsh world outside, a secret space. And yet the secret seemed to be that they were killing eachother, or so it seemed to me, or that at best, each was holding the other back from something that the other vaguely imagined was possible. The image of relationships that I received from my mother and father is very close to Eugene O’Neill. I have thought about it for years, but I don’t really know more now than I did then. There was something suffocating, something unsaid, something almost murderous, and there was comforting, there was this…couple. I had noticed that my father had no male friends, none, no one to talk to that way, and that he had been in this state of no-male-friends-of-his-own since the late 1930’s, I suppose since he met my mother. And though I mistrust myself in this area, I think she wanted it that way, she needed him alone, and her dissatisfaction with herself and insecurity was such that anyone else was a threat. Why else would she have become so obsessed by the idea that he was having an affair with the nurse who assisted him in his office? By affair she usually meant that they were fucking, and in this sense he always swore to her that there was no affair. In fact the fucking part is a technicality, it’s rather unlikely, but my mother was certainly picking up on something, and the real difficulty for her would be to have to name it. I always felt that Milton had found some relief with his nurse. Muriel was an Irish workingclass woman, plain and sensible and popular, unlike my mother in every respect, and my father could talk with her, he was at ease with her and not always trying to live up to something. His power and dignity were not only intact but enhanced. When I went to the office it was easy and comfortable between them. They had this life together, which was the office and lunch and the totality of his work, which was the only thing my father really had anyway. Perhaps because of the violence of my mother’s obsession with this relationship, the nurse married and moved away. But the question of this infidelity dominated their last years together. It drove me as far away from them as I could get. I thought they had created a living hell, she was accusing and he was defending, neither one could get inside the other, not for a minute, and when my father died suddenly I was not surprised.

My father sat there in the browns and beiges and the television was one of his few pleasures. My father was so used up, tired, sad. He had become all gray, he was already gone, and he was only 58. He had so much self-control! In a way they all did, these immigrants and children of immigrants, they had to walk a straight and narrow way, and the exterminations in Europe must have destabilized them all over again with its reminder of how precarious things really are. He hardly spoke to me now. He thought he had lost me to my mother’s way, but perhaps all he had to do was say something about himself. He might have said anything that was not thought of as advice, as instruction, but as something we might share together. Perhaps if we had talked about his sadness. Or his childhood (about which I know nothing) or his worries and fears, jewishness (he was supposed to be rabbi?), the army years, Muriel…I know nothing.

Instead, I have another memory:

“You said I lied!” Milton said. He was white with rage.

“Lied?” I said, “we were having an argument. I said I disagreed with you. That you were wrong.”

“So I’m lying? You said in front of other people that I’m lying! You say it again right here!”

I would like to have another memory.

I would like to make myself more responsible for the impasse, because I was, I was rather hard and ruthless and also very slippery, I knew how to cut off my emotions and make someone pay dearly for any sign of feeling, and if I met me today I would know how to act to cut down a package like that. But even if I too was responsible for our never arriving at anything, the memories I have are of a man who did what he had to because that was what a man was supposed to do, and that was where dignity and self-respect were, that is who a doctor is, and that is what life is. You are right. And even if I say now that I respect that in him, and out of a sort of ancient obedience insist that this was all his generation knew and that I accept his necessity, the truth is that I hate it and I think it is full of shit, and it wasted really alot of our time together, which could have been interesting instead of dutiful, and might have helped both of us, and surely me, with this problem of my elders, and the feeling that I was all alone and nobody was talking about what they had really lived through.

Because I guess what I was thinking even then was that, while we may not be able to escape the necessity of who we are and what this makes us do, we can learn how to see ourselves, we can get some distance from that necessity, describe it, share it, deflect it away from blindness toward something useful. If our genes or our upraising push us, so something else inside us, yes, something higher, can push back!

It had to do with consciousness and self-consciousness. I was too angry and disgusted to see it, but at that time the project was already beginning to go in that direction: locked inside the self, yes, but by moving the camera, by changing the angle, you could still see that self from the outside, like simultaneously being inside and outside the egg.

In 1967 Newsreel was getting started, and we went looking for filmmakers who had been active in the movements of the 30’s. We didn’t want them to do anything. We wanted to talk about their experience. There were variations and nuances of course, but collectively what they said was: in the 30’s we did everything you are trying to do now, and we did it better. We did it better because our work was rooted in the working class, in the real interests of America, there was a real movement and not this rag-tag-bobtail thing that’s happening out there with no control, and as cultural workers we were not alientated marginals and outcasts and hippies, we belonged to an industry, etc. We were in touch with the real people, you are just playing around. Furthermore, even though we did what you want to do but better, we have learned that it is not worth doing. Change won’t come about that way nor will good movies, although we did make great movies. Many of us have gotten really fucked over. We were manipulated. We’ve been there, and we have earned the right to tell you, forget about it! And that was about as far as those meetings went: a moreorless total put-down. (It reminded me of Israel. I had just come back. I had visited Jerusalem under protection of the guns of the new occupiers. I had my doubts. As soon as you start to question policy, someone sticks out their arm with the tattoo of numbers. The arm trembles there in the white desert light, time stands still, the numbers mark a final authority of suffering. Better drink your tea and split.)

I don’t think we were very interested in their judgements. We weren’t looking for experts, or professionals or heros or teachers. I know that we didn’t think too much of their movies or their Communist Party-dominated organizations. Most of us weren’t there out of respect or admiration for their past or what they had become. But we did want to meet them as people who made movies and who had tried to live out something through and around movies. We wanted to go deep into the detail of an experience in which each of them had given alot. We wanted to know how they had reconcilled individual and collective work, what about ambitions and careers, how had they planned out their movies, what had the role of the Party been, did their marriages survive, what about their children? No, there were really alot of things to talk about. Blindly, I’m sure, we were swimming toward the source of material that really makes a difference, material that is behind and before either judgements or positions. Material that is about how you live a life.

What I am interested in here is the relation of one generation to another, and the question of what to do with our different weights of experience. I am thinking about transmission.

It is not that they behaved badly, these old-lefty filmmakers, or that they should have spoken to us differently. Let’s just say that given everything, our style made the whole operation doubtful. But…but what is striking is that they did not think it was important to try to find the connections between what they had believed then and who they had become now. They did not use our presence to do their own work. They did not try to understand who we were, and how close we might be to one another, or at least to who they had once been. They were more threatened than they were curious. They had, with time, camped on their experience, compressed it into a servicable shape, and given it a specific meaning in which they had invested considerable self-interest. Beyond that they seemed to want to sweep that experience under the carpet and move on to other things.

And why not?

This is all very human and natural and understandable. This is how it is.

The 30’s were long past. The road between then and now is strewn with the wrecks and road-kill of all the sacrifices and dreams you can name. The Cold War ideology had done its work, the Rosenbergs were dead as a warning, McCarthy had come and gone. There were no lack of scars. Bitterness, disillusionment, internercine feuds, no, these guys had paid their dues, so why should they lose any sleep because a few young, thuggish rebels, with no sense of history, came knocking on their doors with a lot of questions? Why should they bother…and yet….

I imagine that we were difficult, to say the least, and I’m sure we weren’t polite or very diplomatic, but we were burning bright, we were smart, and there were already hundreds of thousands of people marching in opposition to the war in Vietnam, there had been assasinations and black rebellions, and it was clear that something was happening out there, and a sort of Ice Age that these guys had lived through was melting away. We were full of life, we were asking questions about everything, nothing was sacred: and the lessons that I drew from those encounters, and that I’ve tried very hard to hold on to over the years, is that the way they talked to us is no way to go about encouraging others (and specifically our children) to do their invaluable job of exploring.

And that if there was anything left of the sensibility that in their pasts had led them to find a home in radical movements, or comfort in humane ideas like equality, solidarity, generosity, cooperation, it was precisely with us that you would have thought to see it put into practise. In a way, to be the people that I think they did want to be, they had to find a way to talk openly with us. We were the living presence of their past. We were their implications. We were their opportunity to look at that again from another point of view. They could say “what a drag.” Most people would agree with them, “what’s done is done.” Or you could feel that you were being given a big gift: “those not busy being born are busy dying.”

The idea is, my idea, for myself is, that the independence of mind and the rebelliousness of our children is very precious. Precious, that is, if you are still interested in, or believe in the possibility of new paths and fresh ideas. And in that case, you want to keep a hand in that dialogue as much as possible, even though it is often very uncomfortable and painful. You want to try to do this at least as much for yourself and your own not losing contact, as for them. And then, you are a film-maker, you are working “in culture,” which is a sort of endless reflection on our collective experience, and you have this radical past, and all that must mean something about your will to openness and your curiosity, no? Well, no. It didn’t happen. Let’s just say it was the USA, where historical continuity and flexibility are not survival values, where identities are fragile, egos vulnerable. And anyway, we were too threatening: we didn’t have the right style. Crash and burn.

I had no children then, but more than anything else I thought about not being that way with any children I might have, or with anybody for that matter. I never forgot the tone of the voices telling us you couldn’t change the world, they’d tried, they knew. It was New York City, there was a whole life that went with those voices, rambling apartments on the upper-West Side, Time-Life Corporation, publishing, teaching, writing, some film-making still, getting into TV work, smoked salmon, bagels, sunday brunch and the New York Times, it was another of the alternate grownup worlds, intellectual, civilized. It was this worldly-wise tone, the cynical upholstering, but it was also the absolute disparity of the points of view. It’s not even a question of whether they were right or not. There was no way we could hear them. There was nothing they said that made us want to listen: on the contrary, at that time, it mainly made you want to kill. Kill who? Them, yourself, bring definitive pain and fear inside the tissue of abstractions. Push everything further along! Obliterate the space between the words and the things. Talk about your drunk wife and junkie kids! Bring the black ghettos in here! Bring the war in Vietnam home and into these peaceful livingrooms!

Maybe that way they’ll know what we’re talking about.

Maybe that way they’ll remember in their bodies how they saw it, how they felt it, how they fought back!

But this way, they’re just getting in the way.

Get out of the way. The times are changing.

I should say more about this violence, which is, as H. Rap Brown said, “as American as cherry pie.” It was also, surely at the time we were meeting with these men who chose to act old, beginning to be one of the real themes of daily life in America, and in our part of America it was always linked with the question of how much violence was necessary to bring about the changes that needed to be made. Talk of armed struggle was in the air. How could it not be? The world around us was in flames. Vietnam was winning. Hands held a machinegun to the blazing sun….

But this is before.

This is before Newsreel, this is in the beginning.

I was a community organizer in the black ghetto in Newark. One night we were in our apartment there. No one could get to sleep because of the way J.C. was hassling the girls. I said something like, “I thought we wanted to live in a world where nobody is treated like a slave.” I was thinking about the way he was all over the girls, about power-over, and he was very big, on the scale of Muhammad Ali, and beautiful like that. Nothing happened that night, but the next day I heard that J.C. said I’d called him a nigger and a slave and he was going to kill me for it. Other street organizers told me to stay away until he cooled off. By accident I ran into him. I was as frightened as I have ever been. 200 years of rage. It wasn’t even a question of my explaining or talking, there was just a face-off in which his anger was so total and absolute that the fact that he did not kill me is still surprising to me. In fact he didn’t touch me. I don’t know why. Probably it was still and again a priviledge of my white skin. I kept my hands in my pockets because I wanted to be clear I wasn’t going to be the one to start anything. He told someone later I had my hands in my pockets because I had a gun.

He didn’t have to touch me, I was dead. I was invisible, I was not even me but a texture, a color, a smell. I had never been raped by such total and impersonal hatred. The immense undertow of black-white in America mixed with my native paranoia, it flowed through my middle-class fragility, it played with my sense of impotency in the face of power, in the face of brute force, in the face of animal and mineral and memories of the blood. There was beauty and guilt here, there was indeed something about real love, about the rightness of disappearing there that way, of my death (how was this possible!) because of ancient crimes of slavery. There was something about the inevitability of this humiliation….

I don’t describe it well. All I want to describe really is a knot, a dark knot that I could not undo. In this anodine experience there was everything. There was me and my package, and there were black people, and there was all of American history, and there were things no one can name because of the ways they have been coded into our being.

I didn’t work it out with J.C. We’d cross paths and there would be these stand-offs, but by then it was clear nothing more was going to happen. Still, for a long time, I was like an invalid, I was frightened of my own shadow, and I felt that this amorphous fear was going to get the better of me. The experience with J.C.’s rage felt more important than the community organizing we were doing. It felt absolutely essential and central. Violence had pushed me back into unorganized levels of myself. Violence had joined me with the world around me. Violence had made me see this ghetto differently, and all the small signs of the rebellion that was literally going to burn to the ground the neighborhood I was then living in. Violence had made me feel America, feel it differently, and how the fault lines were all spreading apart. And it made me feel something in myself that had been hiding beneath the veneer of Manhattan and Europe-in-New York, and Jews, and timidity and fear, and educated distance, and good manners and obedient listening. I had the impression that I was part of a long line of those being reborn through a necessary violence, and the places that this violence can take you.

I started to train at a karate dojo in Chinatown. The master was a former Marine who had studied in Japan. Many of the students were New York City cops. In those days they still left their pistols in the holsters hanging in the dressing room with their clothes. These were moreorless the same guns that were killing black kids in Harlem or Newark. These were moreorless the same cops who were trying to block our demonstrations against the war. And this ex-Marine karate master used to interupt his classes to read letters from former students of our dojo who were now fighting in Vietnam: letters that told in great detail about the savage hand-to-hand combats in the first main-unit battles of the war.

I thought that if they knew what was in my mind (another Dylan song) they’d put my head in a guillotine. Perhaps. But this situation, this sense of being a spy, of being an infiltrator, secret, a clandestine pair of eyes looking out at this alien world, I liked this, I liked the complexity of it, the balancing act that is the same one you live in a foreign culture and with a language that is not your own, I like this looking for the right distance, and it was also very familiar. I had the impression that behind my eyes I had always lived this way.

That I liked these acrobatics, these adjustments of distance, and trying to find the right way to see it, the right distance, the right angle, was very helpful, for in the next period we were going to be dragged out of familiar waters and taken to places were there were no charts to navigate with. You were going to have to find your own way.

I don’t have to recall all that history for you, you’re familiar with it. What mattered was clearing the air and the feeling of possibility that it bestowed. The main movement was the continued coming apart of the European empire system, and the USA’s difficulty in assuming its role as successor. The indecisive outcome of the Korean war was just the prelude and soon we are riding a wild and unexpected wave. The Vietnamese defeat the French at DienBienPhu and open the way for the independence of Algeria. The first black nations appear in Africa. Egypt takes the Suez. Everywhere the words are different but the ideas are the same: self-determination, independence, liberty, and a highly plausible desire to find more humane solutions to old and painful problems. The success of the Cuban revolution brings the news to the new world. In fact, it is very important to us that with our beards and long hair we really do look like the companeros who ride into Havana! Now there are guerilla movements everywhere in Latin America. Desegregation in the USA opens the door and the civil rights movement pushes black people to the very center of things. The war in Vietnam escalates continuously. Body bags return the corpses to all the neigborhoods without exception, white, black, brown. Malcolm X goes down, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, all the great cities are beseiged by the fiercest wave of racial violence in the history of the nation. And suddenly we are not so alone. All the alienated white kids from before, the jazz listeners and intellectuals, the escapees of the 50’s, are suddenly dispersed inside a mass of youth who just came unplugged from the control of their elders, and started laughing at the social obligations and discipline required by the system’s various machines of profit. Rock ‘n roll, drugs, a different sexuality and sense of community: we are fish who now have a sea to swim in! The war keeps escalating because the Vietnamese are willing to pay the staggering price it will eventually cost them to win. The Black Panther Party throws out the image of citizens armed to take revolutionary power in their communities. Actions to end the war grow in size and violence and people start to fight back. People are killed fighting back. The police are an occupying army, and sometimes one President or another needs to use the regular army to keep us down. War at home, war abroad. The war is everywhere, in your dreams, in your bed, in gestures you meant to be gentle, in the idea you make of the meaning or non-meaning of a life, it is there in every act and on every screen in every home. Image comes to mean war. And this part, the war, is like the ritual drum of trance: it drives everything along, it sets the groove, the mood, it spreads its twilight smokey desperate careless tone of young men bodies ripped apart by metal shreds, of fire blooming in the tree tops, of blood soaking into fabric, mixing in water and mud and on sidewalks, or splattered across a wall, of blood dripping from plastic I.V. bags, of sacrificing everything you have for nothing that makes any sense to any reasonable person, or only doing it because it is a friend and friendship is the feeling you have to save. The images of that war, and their impact, have never been equaled, nor will they be, because of the work of hardening and defending and distancing from image that has gone on inside us in the years since.

This history I am describing created a vast new territory of the imagination, and it remapped the geography of the planet. Vietnam and Cuba were closer than France. Venezuela showed parallels with Newark, New Jersey, while Guinea-Bissau or Mozambique were not far from Watts. Rebelling students in Mexico City spoke to kids at Columbia University and Pachucos in L.A. Some regions were the front lines and in flames while others worked in relative peace to extend our sense of more interesting ways to live. And we, we were privileged to be behind the lines–in the USA–“in the belly of the beast,” as the saying went–a 5th column, a resistance movement capable of doing some damage and impeding the function of the imperial machine, but always obliged to wait for help from our allies abroad.

And life in this new territory confirmed the sense that the bonds that hold have more to do with shared experience, with shared ideas and desires and ways of working, than with Blood or Nation. If you lived in this new territory you lived different friendships and intimacies, you lived languages and adventures that had nothing to do with what we had known before, and it was out of this that a different sense of family and community grew up. Living differently, the colors of the world changed. I had the impression that a blindfold was taken off. I was beginning to see, learning all over again. There were dangers, extreme highs and lows of feeling, and a breadth of daily experience that seemed to point toward another way of living on a global scale.

I began talking about violence before because of how crucial the question of violence was in all this. There was a war going on. And then, right there down the street for example, wherever people tried to alter the conditions of their lives, there was violence. Wars, armies, CIA/FBI, police, prisons, gangs, guns, bombs, knives, karate. You pushed and they pushed back ten times harder. And so: how much violence is necessary to the process of changing things? Changing things in the world? changing things inside oneself? How much armed violence needs to be organized? How much of the daily violence of pushing things to their extremes, of forcing the issue and making oneself vulnerable and going over the edge? In personal relationships for example, in love and in work and in the play between men and women, and in bringing up our children?

The real substance of those years was this illusive idea of change. What is real and significant change? In the organization of work and leadership in a society, for example, and in the distribution of its wealth? What kind of change do we need? what’s possible in the relations between men and women, or in our whole conception of sexuality?

What’s the best way to live together?

What do I need?

What do you want?

What part is “human nature” and what part is our free choice?

How much can I give up before I lose I?

How can we go there?

Historically, the ground we were working was called utopian. But we didn’t feel utopian, we felt gritty and realistic, and grounded in a point of view that argued that new levels of technological capacity have made utopian ideas plausible and practical, and absolutely essential for our collective survival on the planet. To get there, however, means over-turning everything.

The days went by. The years went by. What was difficult and painful in them was largely overcome by the very density of experience. I mean, there was a sense of being at ground zero, at the heart of the matter. It was clear that changing things, in oneself or in the world, is not an event, a specific moment or act, but a process that never actually ends. It is a life, or a way of living, a way of carrying a point of view through a life, and events indicated that not many people are down for a life like that. It is a difficult life without much certainty or security, in those times and in these times a very minority life, and its real sense is a playfulness, contradictory as this may seem, that goes against all the ways we have been indoctrinated and trained to try to control everything, and to assure our own survival. So the question of change led us back to how complicated the idea of change really is. About how deep the need for stability, predictability and assurance are, about how ridgid our structures of survival are and how they make us suspicious and inflexible, and about how deep the structures of control are, both inside us and encircling us, and penetrating into the very privacy of our body feeling mind. Their terror was real enough, but we are complicitous in the repression, and habit numbs even pain. Change led us back toward a collision with stasis. It obliged us to ask (once again!) whether our openness wasn’t just another aspect of our priviledges: that we were for the most part the same relatively protected minority we had always been, as dissident or alienated as we had always been, and therefore ready for any adventure that might lead us up out of this dead place and into more promising and fruitful ground. But with very few real stakes in any of the dominant activities of our society, living on the edge and in an odd shadowland of other ideas and a self-elaborated culture, we were strange spokespeople for a new way of life. And change led us back to the question of violence: of what its real role in change was, of the minority nature of our violence, and of how difficult it is to imagine that violence and coercion can do anything but replicate their massive violence and coercion.

Erika and I were in love in a way I cannot describe adequately, and that has only been possible to try to live with and try to live out. Our love was very new then, it had only started a few months before. We were sleeping in a small cabin not far from the main house where the rest of our collective lived. Winter, dawn, there was a hard steady knocking on the door. This little cabin had once been a chicken coop. It had no windows, but small openings between the rafters, and through these slits I could see that we were surrounded: the shack was surrounded by state police in high black boots, and FBI agents in their usual street clothes and with automatic weapons aiming at this place that measures maybe 3 meters by 4 meters.

At that time I slept with a handgun under my pillow. We could discuss the wide range of reasons for this, but let’s just say that it was in the nature of that period of our history. What’s true is that when it came to members of the Black Panther Party and other companeros of color, the pigs didn’t knock, they just came in shooting. Helicopters in Vietnam never knock, and white phosphorous burns indifferently to the bone and then through the bone. Under the pillow my fingers wrap around the .38 special. Erika and I are looking at eachother, into eachother. The phrase is “Live like them!” Try to live like all the freedom fighters everywhere, from the Sierra Maestra to CuChi, from Chicago to Quebec or Mexico City or Berlin or Luanda, “live like them!” was a very tangible imperpetive. We had built a great deal around it and we had tried not to cheat. “Come out with your hands up!” The stock of the shotgun beats against the door. “Live like them now!” At this moment it means, “show the same level of resistance as other freedom fighters. Make the enemy pay a price for its repression. Act out the collective determination. Don’t hide behind your white skin. Be an example.” We are still looking into eachother Erika and me, and we have always loved, so much, from the start, which was then. “Come out! Live like them!”

I think I thought I might use the gun that was in my hand, but my body knew I would not come out of that cabin shooting. The part of Erika in this is imponderable. I got up. I went to the door nude, in these situations it is better to be nude. I opened the door and stepped out into the bare field. With my hands in the air. Big florid nervous men, those men, men-men, they close around. Erika comes out. Probably they laughed. We stand in the snow while these movie-typical men search the cabin. They are looking for some fugitives. Friends of ours, we know they’re far away. The police don’t bother to look under the pillow. All they want is our indentification.

Some years later, in Europe, I worked with a photograph of 3 Polish, jewish locksmiths, nude except for their shorts in the Auschwitz winter, in a light drifting hazy snow or mist. They are gravediggers for corpses coming from the gas chambers. When their job is done they will be killed. I keep filming this old rare fading photograph in different ways. Strangely attracted to it. Feeling the cold on their bare backs and the needles of snow. Feeling in my body the way their bodies are bent over, both a natural posture and a contortion.

Like so many experiences I know nothing about it and something about it.

The pounding on the door, what flooded between me and Erika, or the triangle that was formed by the points of our two bodies pressed together still half-asleep and humid, and my hand on the butt of the pistol: that one experience, like so much that we lived during those years, was inconclusive. Taken by itself, alone, separated from the whole tissue, it’s incomplete. Incomplete without the shadow of all the friends who were also being woken at gunpoint in the big house 50 meters away. Or the black tops of the bare maples against the sky. Or Doodles the wolf dog barking from the barn. Or without knowing that many of us had been to Hanoi or Havana wanting more than anything to conspire and increase our common force and make as much trouble as possible for our government. There was alot of activity to put to our accounts, but it still felt the way it always had felt, the way it felt from the beginning, tangible and intangible, real and unreal, an odd piece of work where stark elements, like various documents, were indistinguishable from the fictions we use to try to make an order out of all this experience that is streaming by.

Somewhere Chris. Marker asks, “Where does history get made?” A question like that, and the pain that I think lies just behind it, is the product of a certain line of life and endevor. How does this history happen? Or, “This life I am living, is it real?” Or “Today is a good day to die.” Those are some of the voices you hear in this territory.

I lived inside this territory for 15 years. The world it accurately represented no longer exists. Yet I am not so sure I ever left that place. Or rather, it never left me. I carry the territory around with me, and to a certain extent it replaces the idea of nation, of national culture and even home, and gives another different, virtual soil for roots to grow down in. I am still there with that same material going around and around inside my head. My cocaine. The compost of that history is very rich and mysterious, and this was also because of the principle of putting things into practise, because of pushing yourself to step off the edge, because of action, immediacy, risk.

I’m 58 years old now, the age my father was when he died. Erika and I have been living in Europe since 1979. If I had to write about these last years, I would have to write very differently. I wouldn’t be able to put aside talking about films and filmmaking, about the intricacies of immigration or earning a living, or the fierce vortex of family. It is true, for example, that before we came to Paris, Erika, Robert and Keja (then 5 years old) had never lived together alone as a family, the 3 of us, an apartment, a telephone, gas-electric-taxes-evening dinner together, etc., just us 3, alone. There was always a group, a community, each one of us had other people to go to. It is also true that while I had worked driving a truck or teaching or reviewing books, I had never received a salary as a filmmaker. I had made five features and quite a few short films, yet I had absolutely no connection with any part of the movie industry, and only very fragile ones with the independent film community in the States or abroad. This is certainly not a complaint, I chose it, if anyone is responsible I am. It’s an observation, a part of the story, and the reasons why I helped to make it happen this way in the beginning, why I continued to make it happen all along, would have to be looked for and eventually fitted with the whole scheme of things.

No, if I were to try to write about the period since 1979 I would have to write very differently. Different experience requires different camera movements. To get the movements in a right relation with what’s there you have to really know what you’re seeing. I would have to start sorting it all out again, and that makes me tired to think about. Too tired to even try. Besides, I’m still right in the middle of it. Since I’ve come to Europe, mostly everything has been about making movies, or the result of having made a certain movie. And while this movie making was yet another way of creating temporary communities to live inside of, the shelters and campsites that I need so much, it is not the same project as the one that went before.

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Sensible speech

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By Jacques Rancière

Originally published as ‘La parole sensible’ in Cinéma, n°5, 2003. This text is a transcription of a lecture given on November 2001 in Nantes, at the invitation of ‘La vie est à nous’.

Operai, Contadini engages with a certain idea of sensibility and the sensible essence of art. In order to try to define it, let us begin with the beginning: in front of us we have immobile characters, who will all stay that way except for one of them, who we will see leaving the field of vision. On one occasion, another character promptly lifts his arm in the air to accentuate a word. Otherwise, their hands are generally occupied holding a notebook, their eyes often lowered towards this books, of which we wonder if they are actually reading it. In any case the book is there to call to mind the centrality of the text. Furthermore, the characters hardly ever look at each other, even when responding. They keep their eyes on the book. And when they do raise them, their gaze, turned to us and not to their companions, is generally directed slightly above the normale line of gaze projection.

So the sensorial dispositif of the film essentially consists of things being said, voices saying them, a distribution of bodies in space, and finally what we could call the frame: the place – the clearing of a forest – the games of light and shadow, the sounds of leaves or the singing of birds.

The things being said generally speak about sensorial elements. The history – if there is one – of this community of workers and farmers is recounted by the characters through small stories of frost, milk or light – of the stars or electricity – or blows and fights. The community is called by its chief, Faccia Cattiva, “the good thing”, and this good thing is constantly presented as an entirely physical thing.

To this idea corresponds a certain poetics, an aesthetic poetics, which is to say anti-representative: it’s about transforming a story in a presentation of significant or privileged moments. From Vittorini’s book Le donne di Messina, containing 82 chapters, the Straubs have only extracted four chapters composing these accounts. In the fictional economy of the book, the narrator is absent during wintertime and the famers tell him how it went after his return. But in these chapters, Vittorini himself has been conducted by something else than the only fictional logic. He didn’t really need to make this connection, but he has used it to inject the heart of the narrative with a sort of poem in prose. The Straubs have radicalized this displacement by substituting the narrative sequence with this selection of privileged moments which speak for themselves, or which have to show directly the sensible force of what is being said. They have clearly opposed a poetics of fiction with a poetics of embodiment.

We can see why there is this rejection of fiction. Fiction, in the traditional sense of the word, with its beginning, middle and end, is condemned to always having to end, nolens volens, but in any case to finish, to reject all of which is spoken about in the past, in the “having-been”. Compare this film to another one based on a similar story about a community: Jean-Louis Comolli’s La Cecilia, in which we witness the birth, the life and death of an utopian community in Brasil. In the Straub’s work, nothing begins, nothing ends. The blocs of embodiment are there for ever. This position in regards to fiction is also a political choice. Operai, Contadini speaks about one of the communities we tend to call utopian. However, an utopia is by definition what is destines to give way to the real and end up badly. And in Vittorini’s book things end just like in Comolli’s film: the community explodes as soon as it comes in contact with the external world, the real world, with politics and history. At the end of the book, the hunters arrive and recount what happens in the Italy of 1945: there is the Republic, the elections, and the people will find that it is possibly more interesting than their stories of milk and cheese… Yet the Straubs refuse this politico-poetic scenario. Their community has no history, it only has moments, and any of these moments holds the global force of the community. We can say that this film is a communist film, presenting communist moments in which its real is never confronted with another real that would be its exterior referent. Which means that these moments are for ever.

This poetic and political choice of presenting sensible blocs instead of a narrative rests on a paradox: these sensible moments themselves only exist as reports in the form of narratives. But perhaps the word “narrative” (récit) has to be put into question in the context of this film. Because the talking bodies it presents are not informers, who have to connect the unknown with the known. Even when they speak about having-been, the film does not at all take the form of an inquiry in which a puzzle has to be put together. They are not narratives of the community but communist voices, bodies giving voice to the community while giving voice to these things being said. Everything has to pass through the force of what is being said: the snow and the frost, the ray of light produced by the work of the community, the blows given to the deserter Spine, or the preparation of ricotta. Everhing has to pass directly via speech, which has to equal the force of these moments of community.

But this direct passage via speech can not come about in the classical way: by an appriopriate choice of expression producing the impact of sentiment or sensation. We could imagine the phrases being spoken in a tone of tenderness or anger, horror or nostalgia. But this is eschewed here. The passage of the sensible of the community to the sensible of speech doesn’t occur in the unity of an expression or a system of signs, instead it operates by dividing the speech in two. The speech does not express the sentiment of what is being said, it rather accounts for its sensible force. And it does so by dividing.

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In this film, essentially a film of speech reminding us that cinema is also an art of speech, this is actually twofold: there is lyrical speech and dramatic speech. Lyrical speech attests to what we could call the fundamental tone of the community – an expression which has a heideggerian resonance, but this resonance is also in the film. Dramatic or dialectical speech attests to an agnostic mode, the essential nature of the community, which is to say its divided nature. Speech, in the poetic economy of the Straubs, is communist because it at the same time unites and opposes these two poetic registers: a lyrical register, which is the expression of the common as common, and a dramatic or dialectical register which is the expression of the common as divided or marked by division.

At first sight it is the second aspect that seems to impose itself here: in this film we have the impression that we are seeing a well-known political scenario (at least for the generation of the Straubs and myself): the contradiction at the heart of the people. Here it takes on three figures: firstly, workers and farmers, meaning the worker’s activities of construction, concrete and electricity against the earthly obedience to the laws of nature; secondly, masses and avant-garde: the masses responding to the everyday of suffering and insufficiency, the avant-gardes dealing with the future of the community; thirdly, men and women: the women claiming their intellectual and sexual autonomy opposite or alongside the men who make them either into objects of desire, or mirrors to admire their own image in.

A lot of the progressist fictions function by drawing episodes and affects from the game of these three contradictions, to which often is added a fourth one, opposing the proletariat to the lumpen-proletariat or the marginal. But what happens here? On one side, the Straubs radicalize the thing. There is a distribution of voices, of groups, of postures that we recognize materially and on the terrain the contradictions and their terms: we first see the group of famers and the one of the workers responding (without looking at eachother), then a group of managers responding to the masses, from a separated space, itself divided into two groups, each one marked by the division men/women. But in this visual dramatization of things, there is at the same time a gap in regards to the progressist fiction that plays on the affect of contradiction and in which division is often presented as a misfortune of history, an fatal absence of synchronism. There is division because the farmers are not advanced enough – technologically as well as ideologically – to be able to follow the worker’s dynamics or, inversely, the workers are not advanced enough politically to recognize what is positive in the farmer’s prudence. The division is the misfortune, due to the fact that the whole world doesn’t march at the same rhythm. It is a sort of essential delay.

Here, in return, the division is principal: it is logical, axiomatic. The division in the heart of the people is not an accidental phenomenon, or a sign of immaturity, a fatality of history. But the subject-people is as if defined by division, evinced by it. There are artists and filmmakers of the people that are missing, according to Deleuze’s formula. This is exemplary the case for Godard. In Straubs’ films, the people are present, but present as what divides them, what evinces them by upholding themselves in the affirmation of their division, by contending this division. Of course, there is still something of the old dialectical formula according to which “one divides in two”, but here it also means, and more an more vigorously, that the one is evinced by the two. This communist people, going through communist moments, evinces itself by its division. Operai, Contadini, the title of the film, is also the beginning of the last verse of the Internationale: Workers, farmers, we are / The great party of the workers. In this film, this comma between workers and farmers becomes a co-presence on the mode of conflict, or a conflict on the model of co-presence. Which is to say that division is a matter of logic affirmation: here there are no bodies living the contradiction, suffering from it, as in la Cecilia, but rather bodies contending it. They occur in a dialectical, materialised dispositif, which has a double effect. Each group contends its quarrel with the other, or contends it in a internal way (in the case of the last two), but each one attests at the same time to the reality of the gathering mentionned by Faccia Cattiva, the reality of the communist people. It attests to it in front of a third party, suggested by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet as the vis-à-vis of their gazes, when raised. In their text, this third party has four names, all followed by an interrogation mark: the judge? Investigator? Spectator? God? We could even add a fifth: history as instance of spectator-judge-investigator-God pronouncing the fact that it has been, which is to say it is dead, and who judges that what is dead deserved to die.

The line of gaze, always slightly raised, is adressed to the spectator-judge of history. This is how poetics is reconciled with politics. Refusing the traditional fiction also means refusing this judgement of history, while at the same time setting up a counter-process. The disputants contend together against this “witness” who pronounces in the name of history the judgement on what has been. This imaginary instance who says what is dead and that if it’s dead, it means it had to die, is here defied by the affirmation of a “this has been, we maintain that it has been, so it is.” Hence the central importance of the character of Carmela, who counts, over-articulating, those who come and go, her eyes always fixed on her text or absent-minded. This voice keeping count acts as a sort of stubborn bass of the film: a film keeping count itself, correcting the count.

This is how the one is evinced by the two: the game of affirmation continues, which reminds us of this verse of Mallermé’s Prose pour des Esseintes: “Nous fûmes deux, je le maintiens.” Even if in the film the logic is very different, there is still something that says: “we were divided, so we maintain”. Significantly, the character of the worker saying “no, there is no dissension” is the one who we see leaving the field of vision altogether.

But the quarrel tends to change meaning itself. Originally, the dispositif of the dialectical discussion had a Brechtian tonality in the Straubs’ work: in History Lessons, just as in the other films inspired by Brechtian pedagogy, the display of arguments took on the value of an exercise. The dialectical exercise had a recognisable imaginary destination: the young revolutionary in need of exercising his aptitude to apprehend the contradictions of speech in order to apprehend the political and social contradictions. Such is the case in films like Fortini – Cani or Dalla Nube alla Resistenza. However in Operai, Contadini, as in Sicilia!, the addressed spectator is not an imaginary militant who needs to be schooled by dialectics. It is rather the sceptic, the judge, who has pronounced on all this the verdict “utopia”, the point of view of history. In regards to this spectator, this judge, the contradiction evinces existence, more than an exercise schooling a dialectical mind.

This evidence, this communist affirmation proposed by the film passes, as I’ve said, through a relation between two forces of language; lyrical speech and dramatic speech: there are bodies contending division, on the basis of a common affirmation, of a common force of speech.

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It is clear that the common speech of the farmers is not the voice of the farmers. This was already the case in Vittorini’s book, which doesn’t bear any trace of accentuation of a way of speaking which is characteristic of a specific group. But here the choral distribution of quarrels and the voicing (mise en voix) of the text reinforce this affirmation of a common property of language. Bodies never express any trait of expression particular to workers, women, etc. In their eyes or in their gestures, they never mime what the texts recount or their inherent sentiments. They are bodies bearing voices; they attest to what the text says and the common force of its writing. The mouth takes on an remarkable importance. What we see is first of all the work of the mouth articulating every syllable, every wording of the quarrel. It’s the way in which the farmers over-articulate and make the sobriquets and reproaches of the opposing clan resonate. But this articulation had to render the syllables as sensorial as the blocs of ice, the ricotta or the aroma of burning laurel leaves of which they are talking. The traditional expressive mimetic is opposed with a sort of equivalence or equality of intensity. This is particularly perceptible in the case of the widow Biliotti or Carmela: each time the mouth has to make an effort to keep the speech at the level of the experience, at the communist level of language. This is, I think, the meaning of these eyes so often lowered to the book which they don’t really seem to read.

This supposes a unique intervention in the text, not consisting of adding or removing words, but of correcting them in setting up a lyrical disposition. Danièle Huillet has translated Vittorini’s continuous description in prose into a poem in verses, which have to resonate a bit like a translation of Sophocles by Hölderlin or of Aeschylus by Claudel. Thus the voice has to adapt to the exigencies of the poem: exigency of the perpetual upswing of the voice, of adhesion to every word, of equality between intensity of experience being said and verbal intensity. The disposition in verse creates numerous breaks in the phrases, or breaks in the middle of the verse itself. These breaks can be very spectacular, like when the widow Biliotti conveys the worker’s accusations to the farmers (e Fischio venne urlando / che noi contadini / avevamo in testa / di fare la strage degli innocenti) or when Elvira, for the workers “deserters”, evokes these white kitchens they have never known (di cucine bianche / in cui mai siamo entrate). To this is often added the force of indirect discourse, where every part of the phrase becomes an autonomous affirmation: there is an autonomisation of each intensity, a constant relation between dramatic speech and lyrical speech, debative speech and speech that is intensive, equal, common.

It is interesting to confront this use of speech with two other ones. It is first of all opposed to the classical representative tradition according to which languages are assigned according to the dignity of the characters: grand language for the eminent character , shallow language to the minor one. But it also opposed to the counter-tradition, which counters this hierarchy with a cultural model (popular culture versus elevated language), or opposes the arts of making or living, designated as popular, to the arts of language designated as those of the dominant. Here such an opposition is untenable. The quarrel of the dominated is asserted in an equal language. And the savoir-faire of the people is not asserted in a popular idiom but in the language of poetry. Virgilius is already called upon by Vittorini and the Straubs do so even more. Their method disrupts the opposition between the arts of supposedly noble language and the supposedly popular arts of savoir-faire and savoir-vivre. Here there is a short circuit that puts the arts of popular living in direct relation with the grand art of speech. That is how the voice most in line with “classical tragedy” is given to the widow Biliotti, the character designated the most (woman/farmer) as belonging to a world of the dominated.

Following this tension of speech, the curve of the film, starting from situations of quarrel, goes more and more towards affirmations of sensible and shared fulfillment, culminating in the evocation of the preparation of ricotta, of the community of pleasure that it supposes – which is also the pleasure of the community to which it gives rise (behold the intensity of narratives speaking about fire, laurels, sharing). This implies the passage from a dramatic tonality to a lyrical one, from Brechtian quarrel to Virgilian idyll around ricotta and laurel leaves. This passage principally comes about through the relation of equivalence that is constructed between apparent contradictions; the famers savoir-faire of the fabrication of cheese and the capacity of life spoken in noble language. Between the ricotta, its sharing, and the eloquent speech, the film establishes the same relation as between the cantate of Bach opening and closing the film, between the presto chords, the striking assonances and the force of words: Es schallet kräftig fort und fort / Ein h¨chst erwünscht Verheissungswort / Wer glaubt, soll selig werden.

Between the intensity of speech and the intensity of the communist experience it recounts, the film searches for a identical accord to the one that links the force of Bach’s music to the force of the promise the cantate expresses. The equal aptitude to the fabrication of ricotta and the grand poetic speech renews an experience that was already present in the mother-son episode in Sicilia! Against the son-investigator-inquisitor, the speech of the mother affirmed an equivalence between a savoir-faire (the prepartion of a grilled fish), an affirmation of sexual liberty, and a dignity of speech: there was also an intensity and amplitude which became more and more powerful in the speech of the mother at the moment when she told the son how she had been unfaithful to his father. A equivalence was constructed between the grandness of speech, a pride of possession of her body and the glorification of the socialist grandfather leading the cavalcade of Saint Joseph: equivalence beween a popular art of the body and the most elevated resources of language.

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In the same way, Operai, Contadini passes from dialectical game to direct affirmation, a direct lyrical force of communism: affirmation of a popular pride, a proud speech in which the political audacity of subverting the order of the world and history is on equal par with the savoir-faire of elementary things. Even though the assembly of the two takes on an almost sacramental dimension. This affair of preparation, of sharing and degustation of ricotta takes on the quality of a celebration of the people.

One has to talk about the mythological dimension of the film. Here once more, this is first of all a sensorial affair. It starts with the decor: this forest with the ravine in which farmers and workers are confronted, the fringe where the group of “managers” tears itself apart; the sun, exposing the last trio, continuously shifting place in the ravine, shining on a shoulder, a character, making its radiance coincide with a voice’s, before gliding to the side to shine its light on wild grass, dead leaves, rocks or foam. Our attention is split between things spoken from the lips of the speakers and the light events dancing in their necks or on dead leaves. There are all these sounds continuously meddling with words or punctuating silences; bird songs, insects drones, the screams of a rooster in the distance etc. This is what is always so striking in a Straubs film: it starts a bit like a lot of films, with little birds and water sounds. But in ordinary films, it only serves to create an ambiance of euphoria that has to preside over the film’s viewing: in short, a sensible captatio benevolentiae. In the Straubs work, on the contrary, it continues, it never comes to a halt. Nature is something other than a repertoire of uplifting effects. It is a phystical, metaphysical and mythological force. Here, in particular, it is three things at the same time; it is the ante of debate (up until what point can we interfere with it in our attempts to institute a better human order?), at the same time it is its arbiter, invoked by the parties; and it is also, for those who see the light shifting and the bird singing without caring much for the speakers and their expressive needs, the mute force, indifferent to the debate.

The text of the cantate speaks about an “inconceivable light”. It is the light of God and grace. But the film proposes a more literal translation; the inconceivable light is that which does not depend on a concept, carrying out its work without caring about what is being thought and spoken, and continuing to shine here and there, just like the water continues to stream and the birds continue to sing. Nature is what does not stop, but also what does not stop erasing traces. On one side, it is the non-human force that scoffs at what is being said and done. And this is translated in the film by the ambiguity of its manifestation: when we hear the distant shriek of a rooster, at the moment when someone evokes the deserters, we can think that it serves as a symbol of derision and betrayal. But in fact, this shriek belongs to a continuity of nature that doesn’t care for what is being said and whatever can be symbolized by a rooster’s scream.

On one side, an indifferent nature, but also a nature-ante: this is what is at stake in the debate between workers and farmers: what audacity we can take towards it. There is the audacity of the sons of fire, de mechanic constructors and the electricians who would prefer, very much like nature, to never stop. Opposite, there is the cautiousness of the men of the earth, the farmers, who would like community life to follow the rhythm of peace and quiet and the earth’s activity. The conflict at the heart of the people becomes a conflict of elements, a mythological quarrel of fire and earth. Behind Vittorini’s text, we find a dramaturgy of pride of men, who’ve wanted to seize nature’s secrets and energies, force it to be completely active, completely at their disposal. We hear other texts the Straubs have used earlier: Dialogues with Leuco, in which the communist Pavese charged history from the rear while recovering the weight of mythe and the inhuman; Hölderlin’s drama’s of Empedocles with Oedipus challenging the sun god or Antigone dealing with the underground gods. In evoking Hölderlin, we could also evoke his favored reader, Heidegger. I don’t know what kind of relation the Straubs have with him, but I am struck by the way in which their dramaturgy tends to recode the Marxist dialectical schema in a game of oppositions of a Heideggerian sort: that is what the disposition of places conveys: clearing of the “Open”, where the chiefs set up their camp, withdrawing from the ravine where the masses are. As in Heidegger, the reality of conflicts can be translated in a metaphysical war of elements, leading up to a position of defense of the earth.

Story of salvation, in any case. The difference is that for Heidigger only a God can save us. In the Straubs work a more complex game is set up around the cantate and the speech of promise. To the devine promise they continue to oppose a human promise and a promise that has already been achieved. One shouldn’t say, like in the cantate, that the one who believes will be saved. One should say: the one who believes is saved. He is saved in the eternity of a here and now of maintained experience, having become the speech of life. This way the movement of the film leads us from the process to a new celebration, to the affirmation of a salvation that is already there and of which the force is affirmed, in the final crescendo, in passing from the evocation of a fire of laurel leaves to this grand ascending panorama that leaves us in the overture of reconciled elements and a communism elevated to a dimension of eternity.

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Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translations).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts