Thursday, January 05, 2006

Occupied & Liberated

Some recent film viewing on 'occupation' and 'liberation' in some sense or another. Eddie Romero's Filipino-American low-budget action film The Ravagers (1965) is a run-of-the-mill work, but has a little interest. The romantic content, such as it is, comes between a white American woman (Bronwyn Fitzsimmons) and a Filipino man (Fernando Poe, Jr.), instead of with John Saxon as I personally would have been led to believe. So I am curious the extent to which Filipino films (although Romero was always insistent on his films being American productions, wasn't he?) would depict these sorts of interracial attractions (in The Ravagers it's all very tame, and nothing conclusive is shown). Was it a mark of progressive thinking to cross racial/ethnic/national boundaries? A mark of wishful thinking on the part of Filipinos towards a dominant American culture? (The Americans are the good guys here, of course: it's a WWII narrative with Japanese soldiers occupying a convent.) Maybe it was simply par for the course? Or maybe something entirely different?

There's a shot near the end of the film when three Filipino/American soldiers (among them Poe and Saxon) stand on a beach, and they're framed so that Poe is in the background, but he's also in the middle of the frame, and I realized that there was a simultaneous focus in the shot, with Saxon's commanding figure holding forth a certain sense of authority on the left edge of the frame, while Poe's body is the balance point, and the locus for the subtextual romance. I don't want to get too "postcolonial lit crit" on everyone, but for a single shot, there's a two-pronged meaning that's sociopolitically fascinating. We've got an iteration of white American 'big brotherism' as well as a certain gesture towards Third World autonomy (i.e., "they" get "their own" protagonist, uncastrated, civilized, appealing). The final shot of the film is an eerily ambiguous one wherein the sillhouettes of Poe and Fitzsimmons stand on the beach, several yards between them, staring at each other. There's a big question mark as to what their attraction means, and as to what it might mean. It was worth watching this whole mediocre (yet not bad) film for these final fascinating moments.

A different kind of occupation than that of Japanese imperialists and American liberators is the one that factory workers practice in the "narrative" of Godard & Gorin's amazing Tout va bien (1972). After having toiled outside the realm of Dziga Vertov agitation (oh, these films that I will finally see, albeit in diluted forms--more on that soon!), Godard had his "comeback" of sorts, although of course it didn't work well with audiences. What I like so very much about this film is how directly Godard & Gorin tackle the question of living politically, as I guess I'd phrase it. What does one do in the event of a strike but watch, try to learn some things? Having been personally, if not seriously, affected by two strikes recently (the NYU graduate teaching strike and the New York transit workers' strike) I've seen how vilely management and the media can attack workers--"selfish thugs" is a label somehow fairly attached to a worker putting his or her ass on the line, but never bandied about against the likes of Metro Transit Authority's upper echelons! So in Tout va bien, Yves Montand and Jane Fonda simply sit and watch and talk a little bit about what's going on around them--the bickering workers and their grievances, the caricature of a manager, the pettiness in gargantuan struggles (and vice versa). J. Hoberman's Criterion essay says that it's about celebrity, and the politicization of celebrity, but I think it's more about the transformation of consciousness from formlessness to political purpose, which is why Godard and Gorin make a point, in the end, of stressing that films show problems being solved one at a time, but in reality, there are a lot of struggles--major and minor, sexual, domestic, careerist--that one must negotiate in order to make any progress. I guess there's a pretty simple moral lesson towards which Tout va bien culimates, but it's at least a lesson about possibilities, sustainable and practical growth, which I find both comforting and motivating.

The fact that I'm not bemoaning this film's "datedness" or its tired communist ethos suggests, however, that I'm really out of lockstep, and out on a limb. Still, these are where my sympathies reside, and what can I really do about it ... ?

If readers may not want to get behind me on Tout va bien, let me push another slightly obscure leftist classic (unless of course you're really into leftist classics, in which case it's not obscure!), Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's It Happened Here (1966). This superb film is a fiction, shot in a highly 'documentary' key, which shows a Britain overtaken by the Nazis in World War II, and largely "laying down" in order to keep law and order. (Though more low-key, I think it's even better than Renoir's This Land Is Mine, and Brownlow & Mollo have the luxury of hindsight, which gives the film a meditative intellectual resonance we can't expect Renoir's firestorm to have had.) One character in the film, with "partisan" sympathies, gives a great little speech to the effect of, 'The awful thing about fascism is that you must be a little fascist to fight it. There's a little bit in all of us, and it's easy to bring out. It must be guarded against vigilantly, it's a disease of the mind.' Brownlow & Mollo--who are truly excellent filmmakers, this and Winstanley cement their names in British cinema history--make some of the most effective political cinema I know. Their images are spare, the photography as clean as the budget will allow (and the attention to "period details" in the production design appears meticulous); the acting is enviably "artless." The editing tends to produce a rhythm, a serene forward march which Brownlow & Mollo, as storytellers, match stride for stride with the movements of the characters. (The protagonist, a nurse, goes through a gray area, in sympathy, between Nazis and partisans.)

What's so sad--and I really was deeply moved by this film which engages in no histrionics, no pathos--is how matter-of-factly it depicts everything, so that we understand the desperation occurring in the actions onscreen, even if the characters don't. It Happened Here shows people, under the direct and dangerous threat of fascism, caving in to the conformism Tout va bien agitates its viewers to fight against.


Brian said...

Zach, I loved It Happened Here when I saw it on a double bill with, if memory serves, Casablanca four years ago. Your description of the film reminds me why.

I have the Tout va Bien DVD sitting on my to-watch pile, where its been for months now. I just never feel quite up to watching this rather (I've been warned) difficult film at home; I wish this release had been accompanied by a travelling print (or if it was, that it had travelled nearer to me); I'm far more motivated to see Godard in a cinema.

Zach Campbell said...

What a double bill ... !

Tout va bien isn't as difficult as you might be led to believe--I was surprised to see that it's pretty accessible, surely for Godard of that period, and a lot of its virtues are upfront and obvious.

Adrian said...

Trerrific post, Zach. TOUT VA BIEN is not at all a difficult or inaccessible film; it was conceived almost as a 'commercial' movie! I saw it when I was 16, only my 2nd or 3rd Godard, and it made such a palpable impression tha certain images and sounds are forever imprinted on my consciousness: the frame with the dancing girls in the ad, the sound of their clomping shoes; the cheques being torn out in the credits; the lateral tracks (and their rolling sound) in the supermarket. Curiously enough, it's the one JLG that fits TV or video well, because of its square frame and its Brechtian aesthetic: I saw a 16mm print many times in the 70s, that suited it better than 35mm! I remember at 16 reading a SIGHT AND SOUND interview where Godard & Gorin explained that the film is structured as an allegory of society: first production (the factory strike), then distribution (the media careers of its stars), finally consumption (the supermarket). My first brush with allegory! You know that Gorin literally directed most of the film on set; Godard was mainly recovering from his bike accident during that time, although they had both planned the film very carefully, being a relatively elaborate production. Gorin in Australia in 1987 confessed the film is "so goddamned Brechtian it can make you sick", but maintained his fondness for it: "It may not be a great moving picture, but it has moves - and you can't say that about too many films". Something to contemplate!

Zach Campbell said...

Yes, the opening checks are an excellent device--I'd say this film has one of my favorite credits sequences.

Matt said...

The supermarket scene had the greatest effect on me--as Adrian notes, those tracking shots!--and it for me is what I immediately think of whenever Tout va bien, one of my favourite Godard films, comes up.

Brian said...

Well, a friend who'd just seen and been blown away by Contempt for the first time came over the other day so I suggested we put on Tout Va Bien. Thanks for the encouragement, Zach & Adrian. It wasn't difficult at all, and we both loved it. It was an especially fun surprise to see the parody at the beginning of the film after discussing the greatness of Contempt.