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Altering Eye

Robert Phillip Kolker

3. Politics, Pscychology, and Memory

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  • 1 From ”To Posterity,” in Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems, trans. H. R. Hays (New York: Grove Press, (...)

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.
Bertolt Brecht1

  • 2 Cf. James Monaco, ”The Costa-Gavras Syndrome,” Cineaste, 7 (1976), 18-22.

1Few things make an American film critic more uncomfortable than a movie with an overt political discourse. The critical commonplace is that ”politics” somehow diminishes a work, narrows it, turns it into ”propaganda.” ”Propaganda” is limiting; it denies richness and ambiguity because it propounds (propagates) a narrow, predetermined point of view. To be ”realistic” a film must be open to the fullness of experience, with characters roundly developed, given a past and a future, their behavior clearly motivated, living in a world that seems to be based on the world as we know it from everyday experience: continuous, spontaneous in presenting events, and unencumbered by a defined political point of view. A filmmaker must not have ”an axe to grind.” Tacit permission is sometimes granted to include a political or social ”theme” in an American film. Statements against bigotry, against corporate tyranny, more recently statements about a woman’s right to determine the direction of her life, may be woven into a film’s pattern. Usually, however, these statements take the form of inoffensive populist arguments—if we all worked together we would achieve an equitable solution to our problems—or, conversely (and particularly since the early seventies), the notion that exposing the problems also exposes our inability to do anything about them. We have, if anything, only our individual strengths to fall back on. The work of exposure is usually placed in the frame of a chase thriller: will Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman reveal corruption in time to alert the country? Will Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas reveal the perfidy of the nuclear power company before it silences them? The race against time and evil pursuers constitutes a genre into which any subject can be molded. Even European filmmakers are not immune to it. In Z (1968), Costa-Gavras made a powerful political thriller about murder and repression in Greece in which, as in so many recent American films, a reporter runs down the dismal facts.2

2The fear of determined political analysis, of raising a clear and unencumbered political voice in commercial American film, is part of a greater political phenomenon. In the United States ”politics” usually connotes the machinations of vote-getting rather than the realities of the structures of power. When politics in this more general sense is theorized about, or discussed in a fictional narrative, any deviation from the conventional ideologies of individualism, free enterprise, and equal opportunity for all members of the society to better themselves is considered not so much subversive as unseemly and the expression of an alternative, analytical political discourse is therefore made very difficult. In current commercial cinema (in America, and to a growing extent in Europe and elsewhere) a simple economic censorship operates to keep dissenting voices unheard. Financing is difficult to find for political works, indeed for any work which in form or content deviates from the standard comedic or melodramatic conventions of realism. Just as the larger, conventional ideology that encompasses it presents itself as the only viable ideology (even when it does not represent the real situation of most individuals), so conventional realism presents itself as the only way experience is to be understood cinematically. Radical variations in form and content are condemned as being ”unrealistic,” and worse, not entertaining—the final form of censorship awaiting a film that does manage to go beyond the conventions. Film is only entertainment; if it defies that boundary it has denied its function.

3There are differences in the ideologies of European and some developing countries that make this censorship less rigorous, that enable (or enabled) the cinema of these countries occasionally to give voice to an alternative discourse or assume a political perspective different from the one that dominates the culture. Many European countries were socialist, and since it is the socialist—the leftist or Marxist—perspective that insists cinema (and imaginative expression in general) deal with people in social and political contexts, the ideological repression, on that level, was less severe there. But other difficulties emerge. Some socialist ideology denies the appropriateness of dealing with subjective, psychological problems in film as vigorously as capitalist ideology denies the appropriateness of dealing with social and political problems. There is also the burdensome history of socialist realism—the refusal to permit experiment, the promotion of formal simplicity and easily grasped conventions that restricts inquiry as much as any other unquestioned form of ”realism” does. Fortunately the strictures of socialist realism loosened considerably in Eastern Europe towards the end of the cold war (even somewhat in the USSR, as can be witnessed in films such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, 1972). In social democratic Europe, there is not the paranoia and arrogant dismissal of leftist ideology to the degree that exists in the United States. There is (or at least was) less difficulty in creating and finding an audience for films that inquire about social and political realities and that offer leftist alternatives to them.

  • * Costa-Gavras has attempted to maintain a political base to his filmmaking, particularly in his film (...)

4Considerably less inquiry of this kind is going on in the 1980s, and some filmmakers, like Godard, Bertolucci, and Costa-Gavras, are retreating to less inquisitive modes of filmmaking or to downright, unquestioning melodrama.* Much of this retreat may have to do with a desire simply to get their work funded and distributed, a problem less oppressive in the sixties and seventies than it is now.

5In a sense I have been discussing political film throughout this book. An essential component of the neorealist endeavor was its concern, really for the first time in film, to deal objectively with the working class. That it could not avoid sentimentalizing its subject is ultimately unimportant. The fact is that by consciously choosing to concentrate upon a socially and economically defined entity, the neorealists politicized their images and narratives. They replaced psychological inquiry with depictions of external struggle with the social environment, the government, the economic and political state of postwar Italy. As neorealism became the founding movement for contemporary cinema, its political initiative was never lost, although the focus moved from the working to the middle class, if only because European filmmakers were and are middle-class intellectuals, more comfortable dealing with their own class (a fact which does not obviate the troubling question of how the working class will get films made by it and about it). Of course the process of politicizing the image was not universal; some major, popular filmmakers, like Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut, avoided overt political concerns. And in many instances (Godard’s is the classic example) the politicizing of content followed the experimentation with form—an experimentation, I must reiterate, that was itself a political act.

6When in the early part of the century the surrealists and dadaists set out to disturb the refined conventions of the fine arts, they were addressing a limited audience and playing upon the value of shock and surprise. When Antonioni, Resnais, and Godard set out to redefine the conventions of narrative cinema in the early sixties they were subverting a form known to millions of people who had found it comfortable and undemanding. These filmmakers began implying that happiness is not always fun, that the pleasures of narrative had to be sought out and worked for, and that this work would be liberating. It was precisely the comfort and security of the old, closed forms of filmic storytelling that allowed film to be the repository for conventional wisdom, melodramatic morality, dollar-book Freud, and the subliminal whisperings of the dominant ideology. Modernist and Brechtian cinema attempted to remove the security and dislodge old conventions and viewer attitudes. This was a political process in the sense that it broke the authoritarian grasp of the old, closed forms and gave the viewer freedom to think and feel, to draw conclusions rather than only accept them. It was a psychological process as well, preventing the viewer from identifying with the events on the screen, instead inviting the viewer to judge their value and use.

7The films of Godard are an index to these processes. In his early generic experiments and tryings-out of the Brechtian model, he probed not only the relationship of image to viewer, but the nature of images themselves. He discovered that the image had become a fetish, a projection of desire that acted as a substitute for the reality of things and people. In Les carabiniers, the brave and stupid soldiers bring home the spoils of war, a trunk filled with picture postcards that they divide, catalogue, and covet. The Parthenon (which they do not like because it is damaged); the leaning tower of Pisa (which they have to bend over sideways to see); photos of trains and boats and foreign countries; the Technicolor factory in Hollywood; Cleopatra (a photo of Elizabeth Taylor); dozens of pictures of things which are to them as real as—more real than—the things themselves, which they have never seen. The sign replaces what it signifies and the owners fetishize the image, the way the audience fetishizes the images on the page or the screen, embracing them as a reality. In A Married Woman (1964), Charlotte, a woman torn by the demands of sexuality as advertised in fashion magazines and the uncertainties of the sexuality she herself feels, all but disappears into the lingerie ads she obsessively reads. Godard creates a montage of lingerie layouts that Charlotte looks at in a magazine. On the sound track is a pop song, ”Sad movies always make me cry.” As the montage proceeds, Charlotte appears suddenly in front of a brassiere ad, and not until the camera moves do we realize that it is an enormous wall poster that she is walking in front of. Our first reaction to the image is that somehow she has literally entered her fashion magazine and become part of it. The image absorbs life, and Godard sees culture disappearing into the signs once created to explain it.

8”The signs take root and pile up with no foundation in the axis of appearances,” he says in Le gai savoir (1968). And in his later films he attempted to query those signs and the way they have deformed us intellectually, sexually, politically. He piled them up himself, cataloguing them roughly, until finally he discovered the possibility of explaining them by means of a Marxist model. He began to work out for himself the Marxist ground of Brecht, developing explanations of why and how we are forced to allow ourselves to surrender to images. But for Godard an explanation always resulted in more questions. He saw clearly that images have an oppressive function, and that this oppression is the result of our yielding to the unexamined assumptions of work, ownership, play, love, sexuality that our culture tells us are correct (in Le gai savoir there is a set of graphics with the words ”Henceforth we refuse to accept any self-evident truths,” ending with a drawing of a television set with the words ”self-evident truths” on the screen, guarded on each side by a storm trooper). Godard understood the tyranny of images and the way that individual needs and desires—personal, social, and economic—are shunted aside by the pictures of false security and stability presented by advertisements and the romantic delusions of film and television fiction. But how to reorder the ideological sign system, realign it with the realities of every day life, was still a problem. Even the assumption of the Marxist perspective did not allow him to shake off self-doubt and a certain romantic pleasure in his own uneasiness, most clearly expressed in Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1966). Here a narrative whose subjects are urban renewal in Paris, the Vietnam war and its effect on the consciousness of the West, and the obscenities of a consumerism that threatens to turn people themselves into objects (the central character takes up prostitution to supplement her husband’s income) is overlaid by Godard’s own voice questioning the appropriateness of his images and his ability to combine his subjectivity with objective analysis. In the films of the Dziga Vertov period (1969-71, made in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin), he attempted to undermine this romanticism by ridding himself of fictional narrative completely and bringing to the foreground the essayistic quality that was always part of his work. Films like Wind from the East, British Sounds, and Vladimir and Rosa go beyond the process of Brechtian alienation by denying themselves and the audience any possibility of emotional rapprochement. They are teaching tools, demonstrations of Marxist models for the appropriate use of images and sound; demands for understanding these images and sounds in the context of class and class struggle. The taxonomy of images that goes on in these cinetracts, the explanations of how images fool us into believing they are real, are clear and indisputable. But the arrogance and coldness with which the explanations are sometimes made do more than make us distant, agitated, and inquisitive; they make the explanations difficult to deal with.

  • 3 For a less harsh treatment of the Dziga Vertov films, see Monaco, New Wave, pp. 213-52. See also S (...)

9These films go beyond those of Straub and Huillet in the distance they create and the unyielding manner in which they state their analyses, and they tend to negate the dialectical method inherent in the Brechtian approach. In History Lessons (1972), based upon Brecht’s fragment The Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar, Straub and Huillet present the spectator with extended interviews in which actors in togas expound upon the economic history of ancient Rome and the growth of the merchant class, interviews which are intercut with even longer shots from within a car traveling through the markets, slums, and poor and middle-class neighborhoods of modern Rome. In the association of these images with the actors’ speeches lies the history lesson: the attitudes voiced by the actors speaking for the ancients result in the urban structures of the present, and these in turn reflect the past. The arrogance and exclusivity of proprietary economics is made clear in words and in the concrete images of a class-structured urban society. Godard’s Dziga Vertov films refuse the delicacy of this kind of dialectic and tend to hector the audience. Made in the spirit of the events of May 1968, they are full of revolutionary certainty and clarity. But, perhaps like those events themselves, they had nowhere to go. The student and worker uprisings in France were an outpouring of emotion and ideas, but stopped short of convincing the bourgeoisie of their power and hope. After the government called upon the electorate to reaffirm its power, the movement died out rapidly. Godard’s films of the period are also an outpouring of emotions and ideas, but they are detached and raw, too cold and abstract to effect a change in attitude or understanding. To the audience that most needs to be convinced, the films are dismissible as ”rhetoric” (the term used by the dominant ideology to negate the language of Marxism). With some heroic endeavor, Godard turned away from the narrative skill and visual fluency he had developed over a decade to experiment with direct agit-prop, full of questions and analyses of images and sounds and their political forms.3 But he forgot briefly that stories are the best way film has to communicate ideas, and that the ancient Horatian dictum that art must teach and delight still holds true. Brecht never forgot it. Neither did the filmmakers of Latin America—distant students of Godard and the New Wave, of Pasolini, of the neorealists—who learned their filmmaking lessons under the oppression of military dictatorships or in the excitement of post-revolutionary society.

  • 4 Wind from the East, in ”Weekend” and ”Wind from the East,” trans. Marianne Sinclair and Danielle A (...)
  • 5 Karl Marx, ”Preface to The Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Sele (...)

10In Wind from the East there is a sequence in which the late Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha is seen standing, arms outstretched, at a crossroads. Apregnant woman with a movie camera slung over her shoulder comes to him and says : ”I beg your pardon for disturbing you in your class struggle. [Contrary to majority opinion, Godard had not lost his sense of irony in these films.] I know it is very important. But which is the way to the political film?” The woman kicks a red ball as Rocha points in one direction and says: ”That way is the unknown cinema, the cinema of adventure.” He points in the other direction and says: ”That way the Third World cinema, a dangerous cinema—divine, marvellous.... A cinema of the oppression of imperialist consumption is a dangerous, divine, marvellous cinema, a cinema out to repress the fascist oppression of terrorism.... It is a cinema that will build everything—technique, projection rooms, distribution, technicians, 300 movie makers to make 600 films a year for the entire Third World. It’s the cinema of technology, it’s for the people, to spell it out to the masses of the Third World. It is cinema.”4 A cinema that will repress oppression: the dialectic moves back and forth. Latin American cinema, perhaps more than any other, is dominated by American distribution, American product, American attitudes. The rise of national cinemas in South America has been sporadic, often repressed, but occasionally—as in the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement of the sixties, of which Rocha was a major member and whose purpose was very much defined in the statement quoted above, bursting with imagination and political vitality. In Cuba, where revolution succeeded, Rocha’s dream of an independent cinema, with its own apparatus and distribution, was realized. The Cubans dedicated their cinema to ideology, an ideology that would clarify history, correct the misrepresentations of American film, and propagate socialism. They have experimented in many forms—documentary, fiction, fictional documentary and documentary fiction. Like the French New Wave, Cuban filmmakers practiced with various genres, posed questions about history; about the representation of history in film; they inquired about the relationships, public and private, between individuals; and about how those relationships are understood in the light of history. In short, theirs is a Marxist cinema that at every instant accepts the validity of Marx’s central position: ”It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”5 Like many of the major filmmakers we have examined, the Cubans turned away from the cinema of psychological realism to the cinema of psychological and social materialism, where subjectivity and individual experience are examined in the context of a culture and its history, of human beings in relation to each other and to their world. Their inquiries, however, are always in a revolutionary context.

11Within their revolutionary Marxist framework, these films maintain a complexity of statement, an inquisitive and multi-leveled narrative structure that prevent them from being dismissed as simple ”propaganda.” The films of the Cubans and the political cinema of other Latin American countries are neither hortatory nor reliant on unexamined rhetorical structures separated from cultural analysis and emotional response. On the contrary, the filmmakers understand that Brecht’s reevaluation of drama did not deny spectacle, performance, pleasure. Quite the contrary, he demanded them. But he demanded as well that the work and the viewer be placed in the mutually enlightening perspective of history.

  • 6 ”Short Organum,” p. 190; see also pp. 180-83.

We need a type of theatre [read ”cinema”] which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself.6

12The most successful of the Latin American filmmakers are able to combine emotion, insight, and calls for change within narratives that are didactic and moving simultaneously.

13In the Cuban cinema, the didacticism sometimes occurs in counterpoint to the narrative. A film will guide the audience through a proper reading of it, commenting on the images and the narrative, deconstructing them in order that the audience may better understand them. Sergio Giral’s The Other Francisco (1975) begins in a mode of high melodrama. We see a black slave in the woods meeting his lover. As a romantic score swells on the sound track, they exchange longing glances; the camera swoops down as they embrace and Dorothea tells Francisco that they cannot be married, their master and mistress have forbidden it. As a final blow, she tells him that she has slept with her master. She leaves Francisco distraught; he runs through the woods, throws himself on the ground, and in the next shot he is found hanged from a tree, as a voice-over narrator tells of his grief and suicide.

14There is something wrong with this. While the gestures of the characters, the movements of the camera and the music are overdone, they remain just to one side of parody. The action is only slightly more ripe than the romantic hysteria we are accustomed to in film (and that is something of a staple in ”non-political” Latin American film). Our uncertainty is continued into the next sequence. From the hanged Francisco, the scene changes to a nineteenth-century Cuban literary salon. A man is reading aloud a story that follows the events we have just seen. We learn that after Francisco’s suicide, Dorothea wasted away and died. The reader is applauded by the fancily dressed guests. At this point another voice-over narrator is heard. He locates us in time and place, telling us that the reader is one Anselmo Suárez y Romero and the work he is reading is his own, Cuba’s first anti-slavery novel. We see the salon’s host and are told he is a prominent reformist and bourgeois intellectual. There is also a British diplomat, who is in Cuba to study breaches in the anti-slavery pact. The historical moment is defined, and our place in the fiction is questioned. We learn that we are viewing a reconstruction of the time when slavery had just ended in Cuba and the liberal businessmen who brought it to an end are celebrating by congratulating themselves and enjoying romanticizing the past. The voice-over narrator questions whether the novel being read is in fact an adequate description of slavery in Cuba or merely serves the interests of people like those gathered in the salon. Can we find, he asks, another Francisco than that character invented by Suárez y Romero?

15The rest of the film provides answers to the questions, or, more accurately, continues a process of question and response, a dialectic of liberal attitudes toward the passive sufferings of the slaves and another, radical reading of history that sees the slaves as actively rebellious. This reading interprets the freeing of the slaves not as a liberal, humanitarian gesture, but an act of economic self-interest (it is better to pay cheap wages and let the workers fend for themselves than to keep and support them) and of conflicting fears (there have been successful slave uprisings in the Caribbean, a fact that makes the slave owners want to tighten their grip but also points to the futility of their situation). The film narrative is continuously stopped, interrupted by the narrator asking questions, by turning to discussions of economics by the owners, on the plantation, or to the salon, where the motives of the author of the original novel and his once slave-owning audience are investigated, by alternative readings of the events on the plantation where the main action of the film takes place. At one point the opening sequence of the film is replayed, and the narrator asks if it is likely that a slave would hang himself because of a romantic triangle. The contrast between the activities of Francisco and Dorothea and the larger brutalities committed against them and the other slaves has made it clear that romantic involvements were not of paramount importance in their lives. The film continually works against the romanticizing of individuals and toward the observation of large-scale actions by slaves as a group, a class, who can achieve their freedom only by acting together. In the film they do and revolt against their masters. The film becomes a history lesson and a reading lesson. It clarifies the economic causes of past events and teaches an audience how to probe the ”realistic” face of narrative fiction in order to understand what it says and does not say.

16The interrupted narrative, in the style of Godard, is one method Cuban cinema employs to break the spell of conventional film stories. Also, like Godard, the filmmakers layer the discourse of their films so that many voices and perspectives grow out of or cluster around a central subject. One Way or Another (directed by Sara Gómez, written by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa, 1977) uses a central metaphor of slum clearance to develop a complex discussion of other ”clearances,” social and cultural changes made in a new society. Using fiction and non-fiction devices, professional and non-professional players, the film weaves problems of machismo and misogyny, relationships between workers, anxieties over informing on malingerers, factual reports on the modern holdovers of old, male-centered tribal rituals, and the new care offered to recalcitrant slum children in and out of a love story with the repeated image of a wrecker’s ball linking them all. The film is a multivalent discussion of societal alteration and integration, with various concrete problems presented as questions and possibilities, as needed areas for study. But again ”study” and ”didacticism” are not the same as ”lecture.” The film intercuts its stories and documentaries to achieve a sense of connection and vital interrelationship. Unlike traditional narrative cinema, it includes rather than excludes, indicating that problems between individuals are reflections of problems shared in the community at large. It refuses to isolate its form from its content, its fiction-making from its fact-reporting, and allows the interrelationship of modes to become a metaphor for the interrelationship of social attitudes that is its subject. Narrative and reality reflect each other instead of presuming to take the place of one another.

17This work of narrative deconstruction is only one kind of cinema made in Cuba. As in the other socialist countries, there is a variety of approaches, though the ideological scrutiny given the subjects remains strong and prominent no matter what the narrative form. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, for example, is more comfortable with less experimental forms. His Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), the Cuban film best known in the United States, is a rather gentle study of a Cuban bourgeois unable to embrace the revolution, suffering from ennui, discomforted by the new society, yet unwilling to leave it. Alea breaks up the subjectivity of the narrative by inserting reminders of the political realities of the country, the military threats against it, the social reorientation it is going through, the people who move actively around the central character. But the continuity of its story is basically unimpeded.

18In 1977, Gutiérrez Alea made The Last Supper, which, like The Other Francisco, deals with slavery, this time in late-eighteenth century Cuba. Although this film is somewhat closer to the conventional modes of story-telling than is Giral’s film, its straightforward construction also reveals a revolutionary direction. Its arguments develop from the confrontations of the characters in a traditional fashion. However, these confrontations are so carefully clarified, the positions of the characters so clearly contrasted, that the viewer is offered a persistent exposure of oppression.

19The film traces the development of a slave rebellion during Easter week, using the theological structure to break down the Christian underpinnings of slave ownership. A devout sugar mill owner wishes to teach his slaves humility by setting a Christian example. He ministers to them, washes their feet, and invites a select group into his home. In the long set piece of the film, a supper given by the owner for his slaves on Maundy Thursday, a shifting of power takes place. The entire sequence is played out against a dark background, with the camera picking out the dramatic shifts and reactions around the table as the religious apology for oppression is revealed and elucidated for the mystification it is. As everyone, master and slaves, sinks into drunkenness, the owner reveals the innate racism that makes slavery possible. As if discovering new truths, he voices the old cliché: blacks are created to work and suffer; they are resistant to pain; they are the living manifestation of the Christian imperative to learn humility and forbearance in the face of the unhappiness of the world. In a gesture to demonstrate his own humility, he gives one old slave his freedom. The blacks, for their part, react with amusement to the owner’s homilies; one, whose ear was cut off as punishment for an attempted escape, expresses his disgust and defiance. They dance and mock the owner. The revelations become clearer on the following day when the owner’s profession of humility is contradicted by the plantation overseer, who demands that the slaves work, even though it is Good Friday. They revolt, killing the overseer and his wife and burning the mill. The owner has the rebels hunted down, and on Easter Sunday places crosses on a hill to mark the death of his overseer. The heads of the rebel blacks are put on stakes.

Master and slave. The Last Supper (Unifilm)

20Alea plays with the contradictions of Christianity without subtlety, revealing it as an ideology that excuses cruelty and murder by raising them to the level of the spiritual in which the owners can hide. Humility and piety become self-satisfying gestures for the whites and weapons they can use against their slaves. The slaves, free of that ideology, aware of how it hurts them, are able to take action against their condition. Most of the rebels are captured and killed, but the one who had attempted to escape before gets away, and the film ends with his running through the hills to freedom. The closing montage, in which his escape is intercut with images of wild horses, birds, water, and falling rocks, reaches for a simplicity of statement that might make an audience used to ambiguity and indirection uncomfortable, and it slightly skews the direction of the film. Associating the escaped slave with the forces of nature seems to ignore the fact that his action is based on human necessity and is not a natural force. By suggesting that the escaped slave is in touch with more primitive forces than the whites, Gutiérrez Alea creates a somewhat irrelevant romanticism and perhaps too easy a way out. The Last Supper is an example of difficulties that may arise when radical subject matter is presented in more or less conventional form. Since form, in the last instance, determines content, the clear and direct confrontations presented in the film yield clear and direct conclusions, which are important in unraveling the mystifications of Christian ideology. But this clarity is somewhat lessened by the simplicity of the final montage. The Other Francisco, which also ends with a slave rebellion, takes more risks in the questioning of its formal presentation and in the way it recalls and delineates history. Although it too ends with the promise of freedom and revolution (Cuban cinema is always concerned with the success of the revolution and each film must present an analysis of history that validates that success—just as all non-revolutionary cinema must validate the ideology of uncertainty and isolation or the limited and passive success of a couple in love), the promise is based on rational understanding rather than on the romantic coupling of images of escape with images of unfettered nature.

  • 7 In their seminal article ”Cinema/ldeology/Criticism,” in Nichols, Movies and Methods, pp. 22-30, J (...)

21This is not to say that The Last Supper is a failure, certainly not in its aim of exposing religious hypocrisies. The fact that it uses more conventional narrative forms than some other Cuban films points to the range of experimentation in Cuban cinema and to the possibilities inherent in the tensions between form and content. For although form does determine content, this does not mean the two may not struggle against each other, that conventional form may not carry subversive content—and vice versa.7 Once more the issue is the shifting definitions of realism. The Other Francisco attempts to arrest some of those shifts and determine whose reality is being presented and what determines the understanding of a particular reality at a particular time. The Last Supper attempts a ”realistic” re-creation of a period in which, rather than about which, questions can be raised. Its realism is somewhat stymied by the fanciful montage that ends it, raising the film to the level of revolutionary romanticism; yet despite that problem it is effective as a radical reading of history.

22Outside Cuba, we can see yet another approach to the same subject and formal problem in an Italian film, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! (Queimada!, 1968). The work deals with a somewhat more complex political argument. In the loosely framed, obliquely cut, hand-held style so prominent in the late sixties, this film focuses on the machinations of an English adventurer (played by Marlon Brando, emerging from his sixties obscurity) in the Caribbean who first foments and then squelches revolutionary activity and is killed for his pains. Burn! is so apparently harmless a film that, in the late seventies, and with relatively few alterations, it was shown on American network television on a Saturday evening. But it deals with the same revolutionary material as does The Other Francisco: the economic cynicism of nineteenth-century imperialism that allowed slavery to come to an end not because slavery was abhorrent but because it was no longer economically feasible. Pontecorvo is able to sidestep the inherent romanticism of The Last Supper by indicating that the growth of revolutionary activity among the slaves was a direct result of white provocation—not merely oppression, but an active teaching of revolution (in this instance by Brando’s Sir William Walker, who uses the blacks to overthrow Portuguese rule of an island so that it will be free for corporate domination) which then gets ”out of hand.” Walker returns, years later, as the officer of a sugar company, betrays the black leader he befriended and set up, destroys the rebel movement, and makes the island safe for exploitation. At the very end, boarding ship to return to England, Sir William is greeted by a black porter, similar in appearance, attitude, and social position to the man he had originally made rebel leader and then had executed. As he turns to greet this figure, the man stabs him to death. Pontecorvo thus indicates that the revolutionary spirit, once created, outstrips individuals and becomes not part of nature, but of the culture. The man who first formed and then betrayed it is destroyed by one of its representatives, who comes to stand for this man’s own bad conscience and the country’s revenge.

Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) leads on a rope the insurgent he once supported. Burn! (United Artists)

23In the guise of an adventure story, Burn! is a radical analysis of history, contemporary as well as past. The narrative of foreign agents provocateurs, the images of the land burned by colonial armies to flush out the rebels, the sequences of a divided population, blacks fighting blacks, turn the film into an allegory of the French and then the American presence in Vietnam, and the corporate war that, at the time Burn! was made, was being waged against the revolutionaries of that country. Within its straightforward storytelling, it manages to be allegory and prophecy, connecting levels of historical and emotional realities, enlightening past and present. Burn! is not as extraordinary in form as Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965), in which the struggles for Algerian independence are re-created in the conventions of cinéma vérité, but it indicates possibilities of presenting political analysis in a form that points to its content more than it does to itself, demonstrating that a more or less ”conventional” cinema may be as subversive as modernist.

  • 8 Quoted in John Mraz, ”Lucia: Visual Style and Historical Portrayal,” Jump Cut, 19 (December, 1978) (...)

24Thereby another dialectic has been formed. The movement from neorealism to modernism and the use of Brechtian forms permitted cinema to examine and respond to its own conventions. Once these were understood and an audience could be shown what constituted the process of cinematic creation, perception, and comprehension, and once this process could be made to embrace social and political as well as personal and romantic experience, it became possible to call back more traditional forms to communicate less than traditional content. In other words, once the illusions of cinema are revealed as such, the forms of illusion-making can be used for purposes other than fostering more illusions. This may be an optimistic, even idealistic observation. It presumes that enough people will choose to be exposed to the new forms of cinema (or, in the case of Cuba, to be exposed to a wide range of formal experimentation) and learn from them, so they can then read the older forms with a greater comprehension of how they work. Then filmmakers can put the old forms to new use. What is so interesting about Latin American cinema, and Cuban cinema in particular, is the concerted effort made by filmmakers to accelerate this process, to teach the audience how to understand what they are watching so that all forms of cinematic communication will be demystified and thereby rendered usable again. Alfredo Guevara, founder of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, stated that their work was ”... to demystify cinema for the entire population; to work, in a way, against our own power; to reveal all the tricks, all the resources of language; to dismantle all the mechanisms of cinematic hypnosis....”8

25One Cuban film, Humberto Solás’s Lucía (1969), so encapsulates the process that it stands as something of an encyclopedia of progressive film in the sixties, and as such deserves some special attention. A long film, in three parts, it covers three major moments in the island’s revolutionary history: the struggles against Spanish rule in the 1890s; the uprising against the dictator Machado in 1932 (an uprising that ultimately failed and led to the installation of Batista); and the post-revolutionary society of the sixties when the country was battling, among other things, its ingrained machismo. Each section of the film concerns a different class: the first, colonial aristocracy; the second, the middle class; and the last, the peasantry. Each section is created in a different style, a pattern of formal development that most accurately and concisely renders the history and class with which it is concerned. The central figure of each episode is a woman, Lucía, whose romantic involvement is determined by the historical events surrounding her, which are themselves determined by a particular way of observing them cinematically—a method which, as much as the events themselves, expresses the complex of social, political, and personal relationships the film is about.

  • * The similarity is probably coincidence, unless Solás had seen Russell’s television films.

26The middle episode is the most cinematically conventional of the three. Because it concerns the dead center of the country’s political struggle, when one dictator was replaced by another, and because it centers on an attractive couple who, while desiring a conventional romantic relationship, feel compelled to take part in a rebellion which takes the man’s life, this episode indulges in a sad, contemplative attitude. It is told in flashback, through the memories of Lucía, now working in a tobacco factory, who recalls her romance with Aldo, the demonstrations they took part in, his raids on the police, their brief happiness at the overthrow of Machado, and the resumption of violent political activity that led to Aldo’s death. This is a story about loss and gain, most particularly the loss of romantic love (at least of the kind portrayed in movies) which conventionally should be exclusive and isolated, but cannot be when political events intervene. The Lucía of this section wants the romance that movies have convinced us is our due, but because she and her lover are politically active that convention is not allowed to run its course. Here it is not another woman (or man) that interrupts the couple’s happiness, but events they choose not to ignore. They are not forced out of romantic solitude; they decide not to indulge in it. The tensions inherent in their choice are clearly presented. After the overthrow of Machado, Aldo and Lucía attempt to settle down. She is pregnant. But Aldo is disturbed by the fact that the government remains oppressive, that his friend and co-revolutionary Antonio falls in with the decadent carryings-on of a thirties salon (in an orgiastic sequence similar in style to the work of Ken Russell).* The tensions are worked out when Aldo, Lucía, Antonio, and his wife sit in a deserted restaurant. Drunk and despondent, Antonio and his wife attempt to convince themselves that they can now devote themselves to each other and be a proper family. Aldo and Lucía cannot accept a quietism that goes against what they need to fight for. The sequence borders on hysteria, as Flora, Antonio’s wife, gets sick over the anxieties resulting from the conflict between what she wants to do and what needs to be done, and as it slides close to melodrama—at least to overwrought emotionalism—it manages to portray, from within the logic of the characters’ personalities and their situation, tensions unlikely to be developed in more familiar cinema. It is unusual to observe film characters struggling with personal and political feelings, desiring to integrate domesticity with the need to work for something else, agonizing over the consequences of sacrificing romance for a public cause. In the tradition of melodrama, the sacrifice is extreme. Aldo is eventually killed, and Lucía must identify his body in a morgue. She wanders the streets, is observed in a long shot under a bridge and then in closeup, staring at the camera. The long closeup allows full expression of our emotions and sympathies, and the section ends in the manner we are used to in Western cinema, with the central figure alone but determined as well as pregnant (a conventional sign of female strength and solitude in the face of heavy odds), and with the connotation that her life and Aldo’s will be continued in the next generation. The section leaves us with ambiguous feelings of sadness and hope, and with the individual prominent.

The three Lucías: above: 1895, below: 1932; next page (at center, with Tomás) the 1960s (Raquel Revuelta, Eslinda Nuñez, Adela Legra). Lucía (Unifilm)

27But this is not the end of the film. Obviously a Cuban audience, and any other aware of recent history, knows that this Lucía’s loss and the country’s political defeat were not an end, but a middle stage. Solás can allow us to luxuriate in the sadness and loneliness of the final images of this section, knowing full well (as we do not know in other films) that they are not the end of a historical process. The third section of the film takes for granted that certain battles are now won. The revolution has occurred and was successful. There is not loneliness but community. The subjects are not politically struggling bourgeoisie, but people in the countryside struggling with new revolutionary policy and old oppressive tendencies. The formal construction is the loosest of the three sections. The gray tones of the middle part are replaced by a clear, hard-edged black-and-white cinematography, hand held and loosely framed in an imitation cinéma vérité fashion. In fact, Solás is here documenting one aspect of Cuban revolutionary struggle, and the loose documentary form creates a proper sense of movement, vitality, and instability.

28The opening shots of fields and workers seem to the Western viewer made wary by her or his own ideology to threaten a socialist realist piece about happy peasants working the land, a celebration of mindless labor. It is a celebration, but not mindless, nor is it socialist realism in the clichéd sense; it is rather a comedy of struggle, a condemnation of sexism, and a satire of revolutionary machismo set among rural workers. Lucía, a mulatto peasant worker (the mixture and integration of races is taken for granted), has married Tomás, a strutting, cigar-smoking buffoon who claims that he and not his wife is the revolution. He refuses to let her work and in a fit of jealous rage nails shut the door and windows of their hut. When a schoolteacher from Havana comes to teach Lucía to read and write as part of the literacy program, Tomás hovers over them and gets into fights. When Lucía does learn to write, her first words are ”I’m leaving. I’m not a slave.” Language makes her free and she leaves her husband. Tomás chases her while the other women chase after him and hold him back. The final images are among the most moving in contemporary political film. Tomás and Lucía confront each other on the beach, talking out their fears and desires, Lucía demanding that she must be allowed both to work and to love him, that she cannot do only one or the other. The struggle becomes quite literal, as the two run and wrestle by the sea. All the while, a young girl in a white shawl watches them. Her face is intercut with the battling couple, making her a silent, bemused observer, who, as the fighting continues, laughs and runs off to a crescendo of music (a politicized, feminist version of ”Guantanamera” has acted as commentary to all the action; this and Leo Brouwer’s score throughout the film help develop our response to the images), and the screen fades to white.

29At the end of Fellini’s La dolce vita there is also a young girl by the sea who looks at the hero and then at the camera. The difference in signification of these similar figures is an index to the difference of intent of the filmmakers. La dolce vita is about decadence, about the falling into despair and hopeless pleasure-seeking of a journalist who finds no satisfaction or reason in his life or work. The young girl on the beach is a conventional symbol of innocence, the freshness and delight the hero has lost, the offering of freedom and new beginnings to which he is now deaf and blind. The young girl at the end of Lucía is a figure of continuity. Her presence does not signify the hopelessness and despair of the central characters, but the promise of their and her own ongoing battles for equality. She is the next Lucía for whom the present Lucía and Tomás prepare the way. The film ends with images that speak to the possibility of social and personal progress, an optimism that may be beyond the reach of the culture to realize immediately; but it is a statement of hope and good feeling missing from most contemporary cinema.

30In comparison to the romantic melancholy of the second part and the vitality and optimism of the last, the first part is a complex, explosive mixture of styles and attitudes, an attempt to link historical and dramatic form with psychological aberration and to relate the destructive nature of colonialism to the destructive nature of melodramatic love. Solás works an analogy: as a powerful country takes over and destroys the nature of one less powerful and more docile, so male domination, and the acceptance of that domination by a docile woman who believes in masculine strength and feminine weakness, destroys her nature. The only curative that may reverse the process is, on one hand, a revolution of the colonized country against the colonizers and, on the other, a desperate revelation on the part of the woman that will enable her to destroy the oppressive charade of melodramatic gestures. The story line is simple. In the late nineteenth century a peasant uprising is taking place in Cuba against the Spanish. Lucía is the daughter of an aristocratic Havana family and her brother is fighting on the side of the rebels. She falls in love with Rafael, who poses as an apolitical Spanish businessman. He seduces her; she reveals the location of the plantation where the rebels are hiding. He launches an attack in which her brother is killed, and in maddened revenge she stabs him to death.

31This is, in outline, a melodramatic plot with a political subtext, in some ways similar to Visconti’s film Senso, in which an Italian noblewoman falls in love with a soldier of the Austrian occupation. He betrays her romantically and politically, and she in turn betrays him. But where Visconti cultivates the (soap-) operatic posturings of his characters and uses political intrigue as the underpinning of their sufferings, Solás gives the posturings themselves political significance and subverts the conventions of psychological realism, showing them to be a kind of language system of self-abasement, delusion, and the suppression of liberating action.

32The episode is structured in, literally, a black-and-white frenzy. Most of it is shot on high-contrast stock, washing out the gray tones, making the images harsh and obtrusive. Action is cut to action without continuity. Lucía and her friends gossiping, fanning, flitting about a Victorian drawing room are intercut with bizarre battlefield scenes. The women see out the window (or see as if out the window, for the spatial juxtapositions are deliberately confused) a madwoman wandering the streets, among carts filled with war dead, exhorting Cuba to awaken from its colonized slumber. One of Lucía’s friends tells the story of this madwoman (and we ”see” the story, intercut with the friend’s telling of it). Fernandina was a nun who blessed the dead on the battlefield. She and her colleagues were attacked and raped by Spanish soldiers presumed dead. This nightmare vision is filmed silently, with non-synchronized sounds of screams and sighs, the shots rushing and fragmented. Like the orgy sequence in the second episode, it bears similarities to Ken Russell’s work, particularly in The Devils.

33The mad Fernandina emerges as a major figure in the episode, as chorus to the action and as Lucía’s ”other.” The juxtaposition of proper aristocrat and maddened harridan allows a comparison and an allegorical coupling. Fernandina is the ”response” to Lucía’s upper-class madness; she is the maddened spirit of the people, raped by their oppressors, wandering the streets, attempting to give them a voice. Lucía is herself figuratively raped by the Spanish, but the violence of that act is displaced and deflected in the gestures of conventional romantic passion, of the woman suffering for love. The climax of this destructive passion occurs in the sequence in which Lucía and Rafael seduce one another. At once hilarious and terrifying, it is a parody of movie passion, full of rolling eyes and heaving breasts in the best tradition of D. W. Griffith—pointedly so, for the episode reflects the period whose acting style Griffith imitated, and the ways lovers express themselves in film have changed little since Griffith. Though moderated somewhat, they are qualitatively the same.

  • 9 Ibid., pp. 25-27. Mraz’s reading parallels mine in many instances.

34The seduction takes place in a ruined building in the country. The participants pursue each other, grabbing, pulling, kissing, weeping in exaggerated closeups and two-shots. Rafael leans against a wall, in sensual dishevelment, breathing heavily; in the background, Lucía looks distraught and runs her fingers through her hair. She yields and comes to him, pulls open his shirt to a crash of music and kisses his chest. Her passionate yielding is punctuated by the next shot, a high tower rising out of a forest with the couple seen very small in the foreground. The sign for intercourse in older films is a discreet cutaway to water or rain, perhaps a storm. Here the phallic image predominates unashamedly, but not uncritically. The game has been Rafael’s and for a while will continue to be. Love’s melodrama was created by men and Lucía abides by its rules. She plays the foolish virgin and pays a price for allowing the phallus to control her, a control emphasized by the shot of the tower.9

35She has allowed not only her body but her spirit to be seduced, and even a direct warning from Fernandina to keep away from Rafael does not make her understand—cannot, for she only acts out the repressions and delusions of her class. After the seduction Rafael says he wants to be alone with her, to take her away from the turmoils of the world, and convinces her to take him to the plantation. On the way, the troops he leads (for the man who claimed to be without politics is in fact a leader of the Spanish colonial army) overtake them; she is unceremoniously dropped from Rafael’s horse and abandoned as he leads the attack.

36Parody is not the same as lampoon, but on first viewing it is not exactly clear what all of this exaggerated passion and abandonment is leading up to (although we are certain, from Rafael’s first proclamation of political neutrality and his questions about Lucía’s brother, that the result will not be happy). When the betrayal occurs, the events preceding it are rendered lucid, not comic. The exaggeration of gesture is understood in a double perspective. The posturings and proclamations of love are part of the baggage of Lucía’s class. More accurately, they are part of the fictional representations of that class. Lucía behaves like the heroine of Victorian melodrama (or the modern popular romance novel), the cinematic version of which goes back to Griffith. At the same time Solás makes the viewer aware of the fictional nature of Lucía’s behavior and turns it all into an ideological analysis; the exaggerations and phallocentric compositions enable the viewer to understand the nature of her illusions and the results of accepting the stereotypes of the compliant woman. Solás’s viewers are far removed from nineteenth-century aristocracy and Griffith melodrama, but they still bear the burdens of male-dominated images of romantic love and passive surrender. By classifying these images through exaggeration, Solás turns them into instructional tools.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 23.

37In the film, passivity ends with Lucía’s betrayal. The battle that follows between the peasants and Spanish troops is one of the most dynamically filmed of its kind, and while it has some antecedents in John Ford’s cavalry-and-Indian pursuits, its main inspiration is the battle in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff, 1966). Like Welles, Solás cuts sweeping movements of charging soldiers with small fights in the mud-grueling, filthy beatings and skewerings. In the wide shots, the ride of the black, naked peasants, waving machetes and whooping like Indians, is an exciting image of unfettered energy (and based on historical fact).10 In the closer shots, the action is seen only as vicious slaughterings. However, there is no liberal statement here about war being hell. The black troops and their battle are the focus of admiration (reversing Ford, the black ”Indians” are the heroes of this battle, not the Spanish cavalry). The fight is necessary and awful; it is part of the battle for the country’s political liberation and for an ideological liberation as well. Lucía wanders crazed through the battlefield and discovers her brother’s body. Her hysteria grows and carries over to her return home, where, seeing Rafael in the square, in white Spanish uniform, she stabs him repeatedly. A religious procession surrounds the action. Again, Solás’s frenzied style communicates the hysteria and through it the break Lucía makes with her past. The killing of Rafael might be just another melodramatic gesture of a scorned and betrayed woman. But the presence of Fernandina changes and deepens it. As Lucía is dragged from Rafael’s body, Fernandina touches her, caresses her face, and calms her. It is a meeting of two classes, both betrayed and driven to madness, now making contact. The aristocracy to which the first Lucía belongs will ultimately disappear, rendered irrelevant by history. Fernandina’s class will ascend. The contact of the two in the fiction indicates the linkage and points ahead to the changes in class structure that the rest of the film will elaborate.

38As a whole Lucía is a work of optimism and confidence. Its complexity is the sign of a culture aware of questions that remain unanswered and problems that stay unsolved. The fact that the film does not despair, even when its tone is melancholy, is also a sign that there is purposive movement. Other political films from Latin America, from countries also still struggling with older ideologies but which have not had a revolution, are less confident in outlook, though no less so in execution. There are fewer of them, for they are, obviously, not supported by their governments, and they tend to appear in cycles as the governments go through periods of greater or lesser repression of the left. Outside Cuba, Brazil has been the center of Latin American filmmaking activity. It was the origin of the Cinema Novo movement that spread briefly in the sixties to Argentina, where Fernando E. Solanas’s and Octavio Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces became a major example of agit-prop filmmaking—a work in this case fashioned to be shown to small groups with pauses for questions and discussion—and to Peru, Bolivia, and, in its brief moment of democracy, Chile. Many of these works, like Hour of the Furnaces, are documentary in nature, though with specific left-wing social and political perspectives. Some, like Jorge Sanjinés’s Bolivian film Blood of the Condor (1969), document a terrifying oppression in the form of narrative fiction—a form, in this case, close to neorealism.

The Bolivian Indians. Blood of the Condor (Unifilm)

39The subject of the film is the forced sterilization program carried out by the government with the aid of the American Peace Corps (here called the ”Progress Corps”), which many on the left considered an attempt to annihilate the Indian population. Around this event Sanjinés clusters a number of terrors facing these people, who are abused in their mountain home and in the city and have little to fall back on but their native rituals. The film does not have the sophistication of the Cuban and Brazilian cinema, although it too avoids straightforward exposition by intercutting past and present events, building its indictments through a series of oppressions, humiliations, and brutalities committed by the government upon the Indians. Unlike neorealist film it does not observe the people and events from a sentimentally engaged distance. Rather it pursues the events coldly, with anger and with despair. An Indian, Ignacio, is wounded by soldiers and taken by his wife to the city for treatment. At the hospital, his brother is informed that, if he cannot find a blood donor, he will have to buy the blood Ignacio needs to survive. The body of the film is the brother’s humiliating and futile search for blood paralleled with flashbacks that explain the shooting. The Indians discover that the American ”clinic” set up in the jungle is a sterilization center, a place for controlled genocide; they surround and capture the Americans who run it. ”You’re killing life in our women’s wombs,” Ignacio tells them; ”we’ll do the same to you.” ”We only sterilize women who have too many children,” says one of the American women. ”You can’t do this, I’m a scientist,” she insists. ”My embassy won’t allow it.” Violence is the only response the Indians have to the violence committed upon them, and they castrate and kill the Americans. Ignacio is shot by the police for his part in the action. His brother is finally unable to find blood for him, even though he breaks into a meeting of American doctors in an attempt to procure it, and Ignacio dies in the hospital.

40For an American or European audience, the film acts as a grim lesson, a demonstration of ways of life and death rarely thought about or discussed. Its simplicity, crudeness even, does not permit it to escape into easily assimilable conventions as does, say, Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege (1973). That film, a European’s attempt to expose United States power in Latin America by analyzing how it teaches methods of police surveillance and techniques for the capture and torture of leftists, loses its analysis in a well-made thriller format. Costa-Gavras’s American agent (based on a historical figure) is played by Yves Montand, a figure too sympathetic to reveal even the banality of evil. Finally, the careful structuring of suspense and expectation and the concentration on the methods of the guerrillas in capturing the American and those of the police in pursuing the guerrillas diffuse attention, subordinating the politics of repression to the special interest of engaging the audience. State of Siege is an exciting film and manages to teach the innocent viewer about reprehensible behavior, but unlike the structure of Burn!, form overtakes its content and understanding gives way to suspense engendered by the chase. Blood of the Condor concedes little to excitement or expectation, requesting our interest with its desire to reveal unhappy realities, offering hope only through the hint of possible rebellion against brutality (in the last shot rifles are raised defiantly). It is narrow in its focus; unpolished in its execution; enormous in its implications.

41Blood of the Condor examines the Indian population of Bolivia in almost documentary fashion, making them the subjects of its investigation. In an alternative approach, the filmmaker may subject his or her imagination and that of the audience to the indigenous population, entering its mythologies and from them constructing a narrative out of which the social and political patterns of the culture emerge. This is a peculiar kind of imaginative endeavor, for the filmmaker has to submerge him or herself in legend, explain it, mold it into coherency, and yield a point of view. The film that results must trace a path between obfuscation (a deliberate refusal to explain its events) and a sort of liberal universalism (”We are all the same the world over”). This approach, which was attempted by the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, has been most successfully realized by a major filmmaker of the Cinema Novo movement, Glauber Rocha. Rocha’s films of the sixties, including Barravento, Black God, White Devil, Terra em Transe, all search out ways of dealing with a coming to political consciousness of an oppressed people. In Antonio das Mortes (1969) the elements dealt with in the earlier films are patterned into a complex mixture of folk opera, musical comedy, western, and a Latin American-African version of the myth of Saint George and the dragon. The result is an enormous spectacle of the birth of revolutionary consciousness.

  • 11 A breakdown of the characters is offered by Thomas M. Kavanagh, ”Imperialism and Revolutionary Cin (...)

42The film is set in the sertão, the barren northeast section of Brazil which, along with the slums of the cities, has epitomized for most of the Cinema Novo the poverty of the country. Within this area Rocha places a number of figures created out of the legends and the social experience of the people who live there. Some are allegorical: the Colonel, Horácio , a blind landowner; Laura, his mistress, draped in purple; Matos, his sheriff, a representative of the middle class, desirous of foreign investment in the country, a keeper of law and order. He is in love with Laura (they sing a musical comedy duet as he showers her with jewels; they plot Horácio‘s death on a balcony bordered with withered plants growing out of pots made from American oil cans). There is a Priest who moves indecisively until he learns militancy, and a Professor, a schoolteacher and intellectual, who suffers from despair until he finds a political purpose. Other characters come directly from religious mythology: the black man, Antáo, associated with Africa and its myths, passive and fearful among the people until he emerges as Saint George and spears the dragon, Horácio; the Santa, a holy woman, who is the silent center of the activity. Finally there are figures from folk legend: the title character, Antonio, the hired killer in cape and hat, who in the past slew Lampião, the leader of the cangaceiros (bandits who fought for the poor), and is called upon by Horácio to kill Lampião’s current incarnation, Coirana. Finally there are the jaguncos, the band of hired killers (Antonio started as a jagunco) Horácio brings in at the last moment when Antonio begins to move away from the side of the oppressor.11

43In form and structure, the film builds from a Godardian base. Rocha photographs individuals or groups at a ninety-degree angle against a bright-colored building or room. Space is flattened; the shots are complex and long in duration. Cutting is done against temporal continuity, so that the time of even a single sequence is fractured and shuffled. But where Godard makes the conflicting forms, voices, and signs of contemporary realities clash with one another, Rocha mixes levels of reality, enwraps the present within the past and the past within the present, creating a fictional world at the confluence of various cultures and their myths, always focusing on the simple polarity of the rich who own the land and the poor who must learn the means to get it back. In a montage worthy of Eisenstein we see Horácio railing against his people and their demands, vowing no one will take his land from him, rejecting agrarian reform, and blaming the unrest on the atomic bomb—”a bomba atômica.” On these words, Rocha cuts from this blind, foolish old man to a rocky gorge in which the people are dancing and singing. He zooms back from them slowly, allowing full recognition that the ”bomb” the Colonel fears is quite human and, in these circumstances, more powerful than any technological weapon.

44But this power held by the people has to be analyzed with care. There is no revolution imminent in Brazil, and the forces of reaction are powerful; so Rocha must examine the fears and passivity of the people that need to be overcome before an active rebellion is possible. His method in Antonio is to identify and integrate the disparate mythological, religious, and legendary figures and stories of the culture. When proper linkages and identifications are made and the history of the people’s myths can be linked to their present lives, a force for change may be created. First, however, history must be rehearsed and repeated. The Colonel calls Antonio to the sertão to destroy Coirana, as before he has destroyed Lampião. Antonio and Coirana are each other’s double, one fighting on behalf of the peasantry, the other against it. All that is needed to put Antonio on the right side is a shift in consciousness. Their connection is visualized in the fight between them. In front of the people who dance and sing about the confrontation, ”the duel between the dragon of evil and the warrior saint,” Antonio and Coirana take machete and sword to each other while holding either end of a red sash in their teeth. Antonio slashes Coirana, and the latter’s slow, operatic death throughout the rest of the film provides a ground for the shifting positions of the other characters and the slow revelations they undergo.

45Antonio comes to recognize his evil and his isolation. The Professor comes to an awareness of the role of the intellectual, caught between the people who employ him and those for whose welfare he needs to work. His indecisions and paralysis parallel Antonio’s, for both have been caught under the landowner’s rule and both become aware of its destructiveness. Laura, unsuccessful in convincing Matos to kill Horácio , herself kills Matos, stabbing him viciously after they have been discovered and humiliated by their blind master. In a bizarre sequence, she and the Professor, chased by the Priest, drag Matos’s body through the desert, wrestling over it, clawing at one another. The Priest dances madly around them, begging the Professor to attend to the living rather than the dead; the Professor beats him, and atonal, electronic music accompanies this lunatic ballet of misdirected passion and romantic necrophilia. While the Professor insulates himself within these passionate agonies, Antonio carries Coirana’s body onto the plains and the Colonel’s hired guns shoot down the peasants.

46Rocha continuously shifts the events he portrays among various levels of representation in order to fashion his dialectics of religion and politics, of social, mythic, and psychological realities. Through the interplay of general and particular, abstract and concrete, past and present, he avoids an anthropological study of a particular people (the perspective of Blood of the Condor), a neorealist lament for the still, sad state of humanity, and the confusions that arise when conventional cinematic forms siphon off attention from the political matter being dealt with. The structure of his film continually challenges the viewer to go through precisely the kind of integrations his characters face, to place the fragments of expression in an order that leads to understanding.

The fight between Antonio and Coirana. Antonio Das Mortes (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

  • * The sexist content of the pop song, as well as Rocha’s treatment of Laura–who is associated with th (...)

47The peasants are slaughtered; the Professor returns from his orgy with the sheriff and Laura, the dead and dying middle class. The mythic and holy representatives of the people, Antáo and the Santa, are first tied back to back amid the dead peasants and then freed. Antonio recalls the Santa’s proclamation of an everlasting holy war. But everything waits in suspension until the Professor and Antonio discover their loyalties and their function. At this point Rocha briefly pulls both of these characters out of the fictive place. They leave the village on the sertão and enter a world more recognizably ”real,” a place of trucks and highways, movement and commerce, the world of industrial economy. Their wanderings among the trucks are intercut with shots of the Santa in a montage that counterpoints the people of the sertão and the capitalism that is their economic ruin. The religious peasants (the beatas) are cut off from this world by the oppressive landowner, by an economy that bypasses them, by a spirituality that is out of place in the grime of the highway. The visual contrast points up the social-economic distance that exists between them, a distance that Antonio, continuing his movement from hired killer to protector of the people, must cover. Moved by the Santa and the people’s suffering, he continues his progress as a holy warrior. He begins to pull the Professor out of his intellectual and emotional paralysis and drags him back to the sertão to the music of a pop tune playing on the sound track: ”Get up, shake off the dust. Start climbing up the path.... A strong man doesn’t stay down He doesn’t need a woman to give him a hand....” Like Godard, Rocha finds that all levels of discourse, from the profound to the banal, can serve to define the complexity of his film’s argument. The silly words and music of a pop song become as relevant to the images of Antonio’s attempt to lead the confused Professor away from his attraction to Laura and his depression amid the trucks as the folk and religious chants were to the images of the fight between Antonio and Coirana, surrounded as it was by the aura of myth and legend. A culture moves and expresses itself through varied modes of expression, any one of which reveals something about it; and even more, is revealed when seemingly anomalous modes are played off each other.*

48As Rocha continues mixing these modes, one moment of understanding, change, and action follows another. Antonio takes the Professor to view the body of Coirana, in a sequence which is edited to create, a revelatory climax. The gunfighter and the intellectual, composed together in the frame, look out of it in wonder and a cut is made to the object of their gaze, Coirana draped in a barren tree, a primitive tableau of crucifixion. As the camera dollies in on the strange, colorfully dressed figure in the tree, another song begins on the sound track, a comic folk ballad about the legendary Lampião, who harrows hell and releases the blacks held prisoner there. The long narrative of this song weaves in and out of the rest of the film. The Professor takes Coirana’s sword and pistol; the Santa hands Antonio his hat and rifle. The Priest is armed. Horácio, Laura, and the jaguncos meet them for a final confrontation. There is a long tracking shot in which Horácio and Laura are carried across the desert by the hired assassins, as the song about Lampião continues, they all meet at a church, for it is here that all the forces of Brazilian society converge, and here that the film’s second climax occurs. In a low shot of this white building with blue, shutters, the Professor emerges wearing the dead hero’s sword. He announces the moment of revolution as if it were the apocalypse:

Colonel!... the time is come… The eyes of this town will be opened.... I have never shed one person’s blood. But I am prepared to shed my own to avenge the oppressed and humiliated sertão. And I borrow the words of the Bible to say, ”An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth!”

49After this grand call for action Antonio and the Professor divide their duties, solving the old problem of theory versus practice, idea versus action. ”You’ll fight with your courage, and I’ll fight in your shadow,” says the Professor. ”No,” responds Antonio. ”Fight with your ideas, they’re worth more than I am,” And they proceed to do battle with the hired killers, in a sequence most surprising of all in this film of surprises. The shoot-out is done in the style of a Sergio Leone western, full of exaggerated gestures, leaping, falling, screaming, and blood, it is the western turned into revolutionary grand opera. The American genre so admired outside America is given a function and a purpose: to reveal the essential artifice of its gestures and at the same time show how these artifices can themselves express a powerful and useful fantasy of action and victory over evil. The sequence reveals as well the essentially speculative nature of the film. Rocha cannot predict with certainty that any revolutionary activity will occur in Brazil, nor can he predict how that activity will manifest itself if and when it does occur. What he is certain of is the necessity for the culture to draw fully upon all its resources and integrate those that are foreign to it. Exclusion is counter to political and social understanding. Exclusion is what created the oppression of the people that Antonio das Mortes addresses. Therefore, if the popular form of the western shoot-out can be made to signify revolutionary activity, to function as an image of social change, it has as much place as any of the other apparent anomalies in the film.

50The process of integration continues in the third climactic event. As the shoot-out reaches a frenzy, Antáo, with the Santa behind him, rides up the hill to confront the Colonel. The black warrior has now become Saint George and, in a series of temporally overlapping shots that imitate Eisenstein’s technique of repeating a single action from several temporal perspectives, he spears the Colonel to the ground. The dragon is slain. Myth and history reach a junction and a revolutionary moment is realized in the film. Possibilities for action outside it are left to the spectator. The films ends with a number of atemporal tableaux of the main figures—the Professor, Antáo, the Santa, and the armed Priest, who guards the people’s guardians. The ballad of Lampião concludes by telling us that the hero burned Satan’s rule book and broke his clock. Antonio returns to the ”real” world, and the final shots of the film show him walking down a highway in his cape and broad hat, a Shell Oil sign prominent, cars roaring by, and birds circling. On the sound track, a song about the wandering killer of cangaceiros accompanies him. Because there is no revolution in Brazil, Rocha must end the film with the notion of quest, of continuance. The figure of Antonio, killer of the people turned killer for the people, remains ambiguous and alone, skulking down the highway with its signs of American ownership, looking for a place to rest, his role still incomplete and uncertain, as was Rocha’s own role as a revolutionary filmmaker.

St. George slays the dragon. Antonio das Mortes (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

  • * Robert Stam reported that the Brazilian government has a booklet of censorship guidelines. It refer (...)

51Shortly after making Antonio das Mortes, he left Brazil, quite probably as a result of government censorship, and went to the Congo, where he directed a less complex work on colonialism called Der Leone Have Sept Cabezas (The Lion Has Seven Heads, 1970). He traveled about Europe, filming where he could, and returned to Brazil in 1976, where he made The Age of Earth (1980). This is an enormous, not quite fully formed allegory of contemporary Brazil, which draws somewhat on the methods of Godard’s Dziga Vertov films, though it is less politically radical and, because of the political circumstances in Brazil, less overtly revolutionary than Antonio das Mortes. The Age of Earth mixes styles, is abstract, meandering, and repetitive, yet fully as passionate as Rocha’s other work and firmly committed to the physical, cultural, and political context of his country. He died in 1981, and his death marked the end of the Cinema Novo movement which had barely survived repressive governments and various aesthetic shifts during the sixties and seventies. Some political film continued to be made in Brazil during the seventies (such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Tent of Miracles, 1977), but by and large the political impetus has dried up or gone underground. The major distributor of films in Brazil was, by the early eighties, state owned and censorship was extreme.* If a Brazilian film is now seen in America or Europe, it is likely to be something like Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands a repugnant sexist comedy whose argument is that a woman will accept all manner of ill treatment as long as her husband is good in bed—a film some distance from the political passion of Cinema Novo.

52Political cinema has come a long way from its roots in Eisenstein and his colleagues and the work of the neorealists. Like neorealist cinema, some political film of the sixties and early seventies is concerned with the poor and exploited, subjects usually ignored by mass entertainment cinema. But unlike the neorealists, most of the makers of these films are not concerned with creating an illusion of a disinterested gaze at ongoing phenomena, but with manipulating the phenomena and the audience into a position of understanding and participation, so that the film work and the work of the audience are mutually engaged. These films make no pretense at being value free; that is one of the many illusions they avoid. They are unashamedly Marxist in orientation and they explore their subjects through that perspective, for it offers an analysis of class difference and of economic and social struggle. But it is important to repeat that the Brechtian-Godardian model which most of these films follow presents ideology indirectly. While they are not obscure or ambiguous in the tradition of non-political modernist art, they are always rich in the complex details of their cultures and in the analysis of relationships among traditions. They are rich also in the possibilities offered the viewer to understand and make sense of those relationships—as rich as ordinary cinema is poor. Conventional ”non-political” film insists that social, personal, and political experience remain separate and discrete. Political film insists they are connected and co-determine each other.

53Filmmaking in the socialist countries of Europe offers further insights into this relation-making process. Polish and Hungarian cinema offer a variety of approaches and methodologies, among the most exciting of which are the films of the Hungarian Miklós Jancsó. Jancsó is an example (if one is still needed) of the fact that socialist realism—the demand for an easily assimilable plot and hero-centered celebration of working-class life—is no longer the only aesthetic model for Marxist art. His films are rarely centered on individuals, but rather on the activities and movements of large groups, out of which individuals emerge and into which they are absorbed. Movement itself is the focus of Jancsó’s attention. There is rarely a moment of stasis; the camera and its subjects—whether they be opposing armies in The Red and the White (1967), prison guards and captives in The Roundup (1965), students in The Confrontation (1968), or peasants in Red Psalm (1971)—move constantly, vertiginously. Groups shift sides and allegiances, change roles of domination and repression. The movement of history itself is abstracted and concentrated within the limits of the screen.

54These films work through a number of the formal and contextual concerns we have been examining. Jancsó is a committed revolutionary filmmaker, and most of his work deals with particular historical periods in Hungary in which pre- or post-revolutionary events occur. He expresses these events dialectically, indicating the intricacy of relationships between opposing sides; the shifts, changes in balance, movements, and negations of ideological attitudes; and generating of ideas and events out of their opposite. When Eisenstein confronted the problem of creating dialectical structures in cinematic terms, he solved it through montage, the conflict of shot against shot, so that the elements within one shot contribute to the other, creating a perception that is greater than the conflicting parts. Jancsó works in the opposite manner. He avoids montage, cutting only when it is necessary to change an angle, move to a different area, or replace the reel of film in the camera. For him, the dialectical process is fluid and continuous and must be perceived as such. Rather than presenting it as the collision of discrete entities (shots), he develops it as the movement of forces, manifested within shots in the activities of his characters.

55This political aesthetic would seem to align Jancsó with André Bazin, perhaps even the neorealists. In fact, Jancsó’s practice makes clear some of the contradictions inherent in Bazin’s theory. According to Bazin, the long and complex shots Jancsó uses should create a temporal and spatial wholeness that is faithful to ”reality.” But there is in fact no reality of the conventional cinematic (or even everyday perceptual) variety in his films; there is rather the reality of a particular perception of history: not history as fact, but history as progress, as a series and simultaneity of social and socializing events determined by a revolutionary perspective. The world created in his long takes exists on a rolling, featureless landscape, peopled with groups in constant motion, changing sides in a seemingly endless choreography of despair and brutality, victory and celebration. The events and the landscape are often ambiguous, though not with the kind of ambiguity that Bazin wanted revealed in his integral, open realism. Jancsó is clear as to the way he wants history read, even though he makes that reading multi-layered and emphasizes history’s complex movement. Like the Latin American filmmakers, Jancsó begins with the reality of oppression and the necessity of change, a reality that disallows the withdrawal of the observer that is a structuring principle of the neorealists and the basis of Bazin’s aesthetic. The construction of Jancsó’s films takes change as the reality of history, change that is never direct or immediate, clear or quite fulfilled, yet always moving toward fulfillment, rejecting continuity and wholeness as they are perceived in everyday reality or the reality constructed by conventional cinema. Like Eisenstein, Jancsó would create out of his images something that is greater than the images themselves—thought perhaps, even history itself.

56A fine example of his method can be seen in Red Psalm, a film somewhat close in its general approach to Antonio das Mortes. Like Rocha’s film, Jancsó’s is about the failures and successes of peasant revolt; like Antonio it takes place on a wide, barren plain. But the plain of action for Red Psalm, with its gentle undulations, is not the same as the brutal sertão, and unlike the sertão it is not a ”real” geographical location. It is instead a locus, a stage upon which this and most of Jancsó’s films take place, the field where the history of Hungary is played, danced, and sung. For like Antonio, this film intermixes a variety of kinds of performance that grow out of folk legend and myth, and like Antonio examines the archetypes of death and resurrection.

57The film’s subject is peasant rebellion against landowners and the military who protect them in late-nineteenth-century Hungary. But as always in Jancsó’s work, the subject provides only a rough score with which he elaborates his dance of history. Here the choreography involves, on one side, young peasant revolutionaries and older, more traditional men and women, still bound to religion, unsure of a new order; and, on the other, the landowners and their representatives, the bailiffs, priests, and soldiers (these last two closely related—at one point a priest appears in a soldier’s cap). The groups engage in a series of confrontations in a film that lasts eighty-eight minutes and is divided into twenty-seven shots (the average American film contains in the neighborhood of six hundred shots), each shot presenting one element in the shifting of power and domination between the groups.

58Early in the film there is a typical Jancsó gesture. The peasants move among the soldiers, singing, the women forming a separate group. One woman proclaims, ”With too many masters, there is no freedom.... With too many rich there are even more poor....” As she moves on, another woman opens her blouse. Two more women do the same and the group walks off into the distance, three women with their blouses open, flanked by two female guardians. The woman in the middle turns toward the camera, then turns her back again as she and her two comrades remove all of their clothing and link arms in a circle. The omnipresent soldiers yell and run to them, forming a circle, then breaking it and running past them. The female guardians await on either side as the other peasants come up, link arms, and circle the entire group of women.

59The continual encirclements constitute a Jancsó signature: threatening when done by soldiers (as later in the film they circle the entire peasant group and shoot them down) and protective when the peasant men and women link arms. The women disrobing is another act repeated in almost every film. Sometimes it is a mark of humiliation, as in The Roundup, where the women are reduced and diminished by their captors, unclothed and unprotected. Here it is a sign of defiance and liberation. Karen Jaehne writes,

  • 12 ”Hungarian Rhapsody,” Film Quarterly, 34 (Fall, 1980), 55.

... Jancsó uses nudity as a celebration of humanism, providing his actors with the grace and anonymity of classical statuary. The human form as the measure of all things offers a cinematic barometer for the uses and abuses of power. It evokes an eroticism in whose presence we too feel naked, vulnerable, and therefore afraid. No matter how beautifully or peaceably juxtaposed, the contoured forms of the human body together with the meticulous uniforms of figures representing authority present such incompatible violence.12

60The ”humanism” in this instance has a deeper and more specific significance than the centrality of the human figure, though that too is present. The three nudes become, for a moment, a precise and classical icon; they are the three Graces, figures painted often in the Renaissance as an image of spring and rebirth (as in Botticelli’s Primavera). In this instance, Jancsó focuses on the human body not only as a vulnerable and heroic form, but as an ancient figure of renewal, an idea central to the film and referred to frequently in other figures and events. In a later shot, soldiers pass a revolver from one to the other. One shoots it, wounding a peasant woman (one of the three Graces) in the hand. A soldier who originally held the revolver but refused to shoot, joining instead in the peasant’s dance, is himself shot. He falls, is kissed by a peasant woman, and rises. In the following shot, the wounded woman appears with her hand raised; on her palm instead of a wound is a red ribbon, a sign of revolution. that will reappear, worn finally by all the peasants.

61These magical risings from death constitute a celebration of the peasantry, their power and persistence—a power that Jancsó also celebrates by its opposite, a magical death. A man in a leather jacket comes to talk to the peasants. He crouches by a tree and delivers a standard free-enterprise speech: ”Supply and demand is a fundamental principle of economics....” He calls for thrift and a withdrawal from political activity. ”Thus will Hungarian farm workers acquire moral capital and, ultimately, land.” In response, an old peasant reads a proclamation to him: ”The leaders of the present social system will never voluntarily improve the conditions of the workers... The man in the leather jacket says to the old man, ”I don’t wish to offend you, but you can’t even read.” The old man has obviously been reading! Something odd begins to happen: the man in the leather jacket attempts to continue, but begins rolling over on his side. ”Shouldn’t people be educated and rights given later...?” he asks, halting, rolling over completely, and finally dying. This may be the first time in film that a character dies from the internal violence of his own oppressive ideas. If the clichés of capitalism are deadening and destructive, there is no imaginative reason why their destructiveness cannot affect one who generates them. In a film that depends on presenting an abstract concentration of history in which events are foreshortened and there is a desire to draw socialist ideas out of the myths of the peasantry and their closeness to the cycles of nature, the events of the film may take on mythic, even magic proportions themselves.

The Three Graces on the Hungarian plain. Red Psalm (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

  • 13 This prayer was current at the time of the events of the film. See Graham Petrie, History Must Ans (...)

62Not all of the destructive acts in the film are as non-violent as the death of the man in the leather jacket. At one point an old peasant, unable to comprehend fully or accept the new ideas of socialism, cuts his wrist with a meat cleaver. But his death shows a way toward a reconciliation of the people’s old religion with the new politics. From the death comes a celebration; the peasants combine mourning, feasting, and religious sacrament into a revolutionary act, a movement of solidarity and defiance against the owners and the military. By the old man’s body is a crucifix wrapped in a red ribbon. One of the peasant leaders reads a socialist version of the Lord’s Prayer (”... People, deliver yourselves from the universal suppressors of human rights. But do not forgive the tyrants their debts....”).13 There is more celebration and dance—and the soldiers, as always, are in the background. More violence ensues: the peasants are shot down by the troops while celebrating around a maypole (itself an ancient symbol of rebirth). A stream runs red with their blood. The young soldier who was earlier killed and revived kneels in it, baptizing himself. A confusion of shooting, assassinations, and betrayals follows, until the very last shot. This begins with a closeup of a rifle being loaded. The camera pans down bayonet and barrel to other bayonets held at the ready by the soldiers. We see one of the remaining peasant leaders join his surviving, or perhaps resurrected, comrades in a circle, itself encircled by soldiers. The soldiers’ commander and a fancily dressed lady cross the field. The peasant women, one naked, join each other on the field as the camera observes various symbolic objects and figures: a dead musician lying naked with a dead dove by his fiddle; bloodied white dresses lying pierced by swords on the ground. The white gloved hand of the commander raises a drink as a woman in a red dress wanders amidst the soldiers. A military band plays. Suddenly and quietly she pulls a soldier off his horse, takes his gun, and fires; she kills a soldier, she shoots the lady; one by one she kills all of them. She turns to the camera and sings one of the main songs of the film: ”We are workers. We have no freedom. Whatever happens, we’re the losers. Long live the workers’ society.” She holds up her pistol, wrapped in a red ribbon.

63There is an enormous problem of reductiveness in describing the action of such a film. Jancsó’s revolutionary optimism—at least in Red Psalm—runs the risk of being condemned as romantic no less than The Last Supper— even though its level of abstraction is more consistent. Anti-leftists may dismiss the film as glorifying revolutionary violence without questioning the outcome of such violence. Jancsó’s optimism might be questioned in light of the difficulties East European countries had in maintaining their revolutionary fervor and autonomy (though Hungary was relatively successful in maintaining this autonomy during the cold war years). Yet if we can bracket out the difficulties and disappointments of practical politics, we can see in the film’s rhythms, the purposive choreography, the fantastic, mythic movements, and the refusal to bring its argument down at any point to individual and subjective psychology (figures do emerge; spokesmen for the peasants move throughout the film, arguing, acting, but always reintegrating themselves into the whole) the force of imaginative necessity, a powerful call to liberating action. It may not convince any viewer not already sympathetic to its ideology. No film will do that. What it can do is instruct the receptive viewer in Marxist perceptions of history and the ways such perceptions can be aesthetically realized. What is more, Red Psalm demonstrates a strong sense of artistic continuity. In the Renaissance, the humanists integrated pagan mythology into Christian theology. Red Psalm is anxious to integrate pagan mythology and Christian theology into socialism and to show that revolution, rather than being a break with the past, is a radical reabsorption of the past, one that is alert to contradictions, to struggle, and to the need to deny the past at the very moment of attempting to absorb it. Jancsó is as alert to the violence of this denial and absorption as he is to the harmony attainable by recalling tradition and using it for the sake of liberation rather than repression.

64Because he takes such a speculative and abstract view, Jancsó is able to avoid the predicament that Bertolucci gets into in 1900. Bertolucci individualizes his peasants and owners, placing them in a context that mixes conventional realism with epic abstraction, and he therefore loses his perspective and is forced into a conclusion in which nothing is concluded. Peasant and padrone remain in constant, even eternal battle. Red Psalm maintains its speculative point of view throughout and its narrative retains a high degree of historical abstraction. The victory it celebrates at the end is somewhat fanciful, yet it proceeds from a revolutionary conviction inherent in the form and content of the entire film. Such certainty may be utopian (I must emphasize that it is rare even for Jancsó to announce such positive victory); but so was the poet William Blake, and Red Psalm, with Antonio das Mortes, shares with Blake a vision of struggle leading to an apocalyptic victory, a great burst of imaginative revolutionary activity that succeeds in creating the vision of a new order. Films such as Red Psalm and Antonio das Mortes reveal a continuity of revolutionary art from seventeenth-century literature through the drama of Brecht and into the filmmaking of the sixties and seventies. This is a major tradition, though one not often recognized in conventional critical history, and a response to the literature and cinema of despair that predominates in Western culture.

  • * Few of his films since the early seventies are available or have even been seen outside film festiv (...)

65Jancsó’s approach to filmmaking is unique, perhaps as unique in terms of political content as Bergman is in terms of psychological content. No other Eastern (or Western) European director indulges in the long take, the complex choreography of movement, or the abstracting and compressing of history to the extent he does.* Other recent filmmakers in Hungary, for example, stay within the bounds of a more conventional expository style and are content to deal with small subjects and individual studies, somewhat in the tradition of the Czech filmmakers of the mid-sixties. Unlike the Czechs, however, they are not sentimental and tend not to play upon audience sympathies quite as much. There is also a persistent recognition of political realities and problems which the Czechs avoided (or had to avoid), either by setting their films in the past (Jan Kadár’s The Shop on Main Street or Jirí Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains), or through the creation of elaborate allegories (Jan Schmidt’s The End of August at the Hotel Ozone or Jan Nemec’s Report on the Party and the Guests). In their relatively short period of creative filmmaking, the Czechs indulged in a good deal of experimentation, adapting many techniques from the French New Wave, early Godard and Truffaut in particular. They were most successful when dealing with the ordinary and everyday, as in Ivan Passer’s film Intimate Lighting (1965).

66This is a quiet, almost recessive study of a family in a rural town. The father is a musician; he, his wife, children, and grandparents entertain a friend who comes with his lover to play cello in the local orchestra. The film presents scenes of family life, small joys and frustrations, the containments and pleasures of living outside the city and is distinguished by its attempt not to expand or comment upon its observations of unprepossessing middle-class life, to add no intrigue, suspense, or mystery. And no politics: it could take place in any small European town. The Hungarian Ferenc András’s Rain and Shine (1977) uses a similar gambit. Again a small town and large family are observed, in this instance on the occasion of a national holiday and a visit from the mother’s sister and her boss, a dull and complaining functionary from Budapest. Like Passer, András is interested in small gestures and family portraits, the rituals of meals, faces reacting to each other. But he manages as well some small reflections on social and political tensions. The city bureaucrat has not the least interest in the country family, their past or present, and is totally uncomfortable with them. The family are separated from him by their vitality and warmth, and of all things, by money (they are successful wine growers), enough to build a new home for themselves. Rain and Shine becomes a film about differences in occupations and interests, the dullness of government representatives, and a culture splitting its rural and urban traditions while attempting to cover the split with television. The bureaucrat leaves to attend a public event, which is seen later on the family’s television set. He cuts a ribbon, the TV commentator discusses the latest five-year plan. But the television plays to an empty room: the family is in the garden drinking.

67Hungarian cinema in the late seventies seemed intent on probing the country’s political discomforts—both quietly, as in András’s film or the work of Márta Mészáros (in such films as Women, 1977, and Just Like Home, 1978), and with some degree of pain and sadness, as in those films which examine the transitional period to socialism in the late forties and early fifties, when suspicion and betrayal threatened to undo the political reorientation taking place after World War II. These films (two of which have been seen in the United States, András Kovács’ The Stud Farm, 1978, and Pál Gábor’s Angi Vera, 1979) present an interesting contrast to Jancsó’s films of revolution, both in form and content. They have none of the celebratory and ceremonial qualities of Jancsó’s work, and are rather straightforward in narrative development and visual style. Both—indeed all of the recent Hungarian films I have seen—pay careful attention to their image-making, using color as a quiet and expressive function of the mise-en-scène. But these films do not use their mise-en-scène, as Jancsó does, to subordinate the conventional details of narrative development to the formal movements of figures and ideas. Rather they develop, in the traditional sense, a ”story,” though like Jancsó, a story that comes out of political history and reflects its agonies.

Family life. Rain and Shine (New Yorker Films)

68Angi Vera concerns a young woman who is chosen by the Communist Party in 1948 to be trained for official government work. She is chosen because, in her position as a nurse, she spoke out against the bad conditions in her hospital and the special treatment given to patients with money. As a reward she is offered the protection and care of the party and receives a period of study that brings about a reduction of her spirit. At the training center she and her comrades are diminished physically by the gray damp winter and by the party officials who sit at tables before them; they are emotionally and intellectually shrunk by the constant pressure to reform their thought and remain alert to an ill-defined and shifting notion of proper ideological behavior. The film is careful to avoid a suggestion of direct force. None of the workers who attend the training session are ”brainwashed” or threatened into conformity. But the long self-criticism sequence, in which a glib and self-satisfied party representative humiliates and cajoles the members of the group into a perception of their ideological errors, demonstrates a good measure of emotional brutality. The film points out forcefully the way Stalinist authoritarianism forced its subjects into ideological rigor mortis, but it does not condemn the socialist cause—a discrimination difficult for Western audiences to understand.

69In the West we tend to look at any manifestation of overt political indoctrination, particularly when combined with personal attack, with horror. Gábor re-creates the horror of that time but also attempts to comprehend the situation, to indicate the cruelty that emerges from a desire to change an old political order swiftly and without question, a desire that led to the threats, suspicions, and destruction that marked the Stalinist period. He is concerned with what the party did to the individuals who accepted its tenets without question and with a zeal that left them in turn marked and deformed. Vera emerges as a figure eager to pursue an ideological purity that she can use as a way to justify her personality more than her politics. She becomes so easily made over into an ideological model that she appalls the very ideologues who molded her. The extent of her ferocity is measured against four other figures. Traján is a woman hardened by her fight in the Resistance and an unhappy love affair with her married teacher, who was captured and killed by the Germans during the war. She first shows Vera the ease of informing when she has her get the name of an old man who offered them hospitality but is in trouble with the party (which ignores his legitimate grievances). Maria is a younger woman, as dedicated to her own sensuality as she is to the party. She acts as normative figure, a good party worker who is also concerned with her own and her comrades’ emotional well being. There are two men. One is a miner, bumbling along as best he can with political theory that is foreign to him and methods he barely comprehends. Vera is first noticed at the training school when she offers to tutor this man. The other, István, is one of the course leaders, a young intellectual, both gentle and dedicated, who is eventually ruined by Vera’s misdirected enthusiasm.

70She falls in love with him (he is married), sleeps with him, becomes fearful when she thinks Trajdn has seen her go to his room and confused when Maria stops her from going there, and finally confesses the affair in front of the self-criticism meeting. The moment is so shocking and stupid that Traján publicly condemns Vera and attempts to excuse her in front of the committee as a hysteric. István understands the damage done to his personal life and his political career by Vera’s confession. At the meeting he insists that he loves her and denounces the whole apparatus of self-criticism as inhuman and productive only of liars and masochists. He is not seen again. While Vera shows some sadness over the event, it is Maria who shows the emotion that Vera should be suffering. She beats Vera and weeps bitterly over her emotional death—a death rewarded by the party, which praises Vera for perseverance and her ability to overcome transitory emotions. She is given a job as a journalist. At the film’s end Vera and Traján ride together in a chauffeured car. Vera is following in the older woman’s footsteps, but she is already colder and more unyielding. Their car passes Maria, doggedly riding her bike, still a good party worker but cut off from the privilege Vera has earned with her coldness. Vera calls to her, but Maria does not hear.

Angi Vera and her mentor, Traján (Veronika Papp, Erzsi Pástor). Angi Vera (New Yorker Films)

  • * A postwar film from Eastern Europe, Andrzei Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958), concentrated on thes (...)

71Angi Vera is a difficult film for a cold war audience to deal with, precisely because it appears to be a cold war film. In other words, its ideology is altered by the ideology that perceives it. For a Western audience it confirms all the horrors we have been taught are the natural products of communism. For a Hungarian audience (I would imagine) it is part of the de-Stalinization process, an attempt to understand the near past and correct its errors, and perhaps an attempt to criticize the present in a relatively safe way, by filtering the criticism through the past. At the same time, Gábor seeks to affirm—by criticizing its negative side—the humanity that should be the basis of socialism (an idea that István expresses in his defense in the film). That Hungarian filmmakers can express these problems in well-made films that get distributed abroad is a sign of a certain freedom of expression in their own country and their talent in integrating political analysis with more conventional modes of cinematic drama, ”bourgeois” concerns of love and emotional involvement, self-questioning and doubt.* Their films provide one way of examining the possible conjoining of areas of experience—the subjective and the political—that in Western film are usually kept distinct.

72In some cases, the attempt to mix them might just indicate the advisability of keeping them apart. In the early seventies, the Yugoslav filmmaker Dusan Makavejev received some recognition for his lunatic investigations of sexuality and politics in films that mixed documentary and fiction, acted sequences and archival footage in a formal collage that brought some of Godard’s techniques to a curious dead end. Godard’s complex inter-layering of political, social, commercial, and psychological discourses, his allusions to painting, poetry, advertising, cinema, comic books, Marx, Freud, Laurel and Hardy, Rimbaud, Che, and whoever else may fit even tangentially into his encyclopedia of culture, allow him to make a film an ordered focus of disorder that directs us how to find our way through the oppression of cultural signs. Makavejev’s disorder is both greater and narrower. He attempts to deal with the fracturing and repression of sexuality in contemporary society and to examine that fracturing as a political phenomenon. His theme is that political and sexual liberation must go together. In his best-known film, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), he creates a kind of flip-card effect in which a variety of images—some making up a documentary on the life and work of Wilhelm Reich, others documenting early-seventies sexual-encounter therapies (much of the film was made in America), still others creating a narrative fiction of a sexually active Yugoslav who attempts to liberate a Russian ice-skating champion and gets her head cut off for her pains—knock against each other in an ultimately futile attempt to figure patterns of sexual life that are therapeutic rather than destructive. Makavejev cannot find the pattern, and his film keeps slipping away from points of discovery to areas of confusion. It is pro-socialist, anti-communist, celebrating sexuality with an adolescent’s fervor, advocating sexual anarchism while laughing at it, and finally, perhaps even inevitably, equating sexuality with brutality. The repressed Russian responds to the Yugoslav woman’s offer of sexual freedom by decapitating her. But her head lives! And at the end it smiles and speaks: ”Cosmic rays streamed through our bodies. We pulsated to the vibrations of the universe. But he couldn’t bear it. He had to go one step further. Vladimir is a man of noble impetuousness. A man of high ambitions, of immense energy. Romantic. Ascetic. A genuine Red fascist! Comrades, even now I’m not ashamed of my Communist past!”

  • 14 For a similar argument, see Joan Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (New York: Hori (...)

73Irony mixes with childishness, Reichian jargon with political confusion, and in the end little is revealed.14 Makavejev is at his best when he indulges his technical facility at manipulating footage from various sources. At one point he cuts from a shot of Milena (the liberated Yugoslav) looking up at Vladimir (who has knocked her to the ground) to a shot of Stalin—that is, an actor playing Stalin in a late forties Soviet hagiographic film—looking down at her. The idea is interesting and the effect successful; based on the theories of the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, who pointed out that editing could erase any spatial barrier, it quickly establishes Makavejev’s point about the sexual repressiveness inherent in conservative communism.

  • * Makavejev’s later films—Sweet Movie, Montenegro, The Coca-Cola Kid—moved from the political to conc (...)

74More importantly, this effect exemplifies the playfulness that is Makavejev’s major talent and is revealed to better effect in an earlier film, Innocence Unprotected (1968). Here footage from the first Serbian talking picture (made in 1942)—a standard romantic melodrama—is intercut with newsreel footage of the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia and a documentary on the surviving makers of the original film. Makavejev has a figure in the 1942 film look out a window and ”see” the occupied city; the rape of a character is intercut with shots of Nazis. He connects melodrama with fascism and allows history to reveal itself as a combination of fictionalized reality and the reality of fiction—a dialectic common to many cinema modernists. But when that playfulness is applied to the complexities of sexual politics Makavejev gets confused and turns silly; in retrospect, W.R. appears not so much the revolutionary film it was thought to be, but a prophecy of the inward-turning, ”self-realization” fetishism that diverted political activity—in America, at least—during the seventies.*

  • 15 Cf. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (New York: Vintage Books, 1955).

75Sexuality is the most difficult subject for any artist to deal with, perhaps most difficult for a filmmaker, who must work either with or against the prevailing conventions of romantic love and decide where the boundaries of pornography lie; how to show—whether to show—the actual contact of bodies. But these are the least of the problems. The filmmaker who attempts to make some untraditional commentary on the subject, desires perhaps to extend the sexual into a wider context, has to fight a number of other conventions and contradictions. There is a prevailing belief that sexuality is a human activity separate and cut off from a political and social context. Sexuality is seen as withdrawal, a removal of two people’s presence from the social realm that involves an unassaultable claim to privacy and involvement only with one another. But at the same time, ”too much” sexuality, or sexuality not legalized by marriage or homosexually oriented, challenges societal norms and is looked upon as dangerous precisely because the withdrawal it threatens is too great. Homosexuality represents not only an unknown experience to a majority of people, but a threat of anarchy, a denial of procreation and of the ordered, accountable process of pairing which is a major event upon which societies base their continuity. Feminism as well threatens the orderly perpetuation of hierarchies in a culture, not to mention the romantic myths of dominance and passivity that have made possible both the melodramatic dreams of societies and their oppressive realities.15 That sexuality and the social order are intimately connected, the ideology of power reflected from one to the other, is clear to any rational analysis. Yet the conventions that keep them separate are powerful.

76Thus a double prohibition faces a filmmaker who attempts to examine sexuality as part of the social order. Not only is art supposed to be separate from politics; sexuality is too. Intertwining the sexual, psychological, and political into an imaginative form, insisting they are inseparable, runs high risks of condemnation and confusion, high enough so that few filmmakers will take on the task. Ingmar Bergman’s work is obsessed with the psychology of sexuality, but refuses to look at it beyond the couple or the individual. His studies in emotional agony and the pains of relationships are made in a vacuum. His characters live on the periphery of the world— on an island, if possible—working out their sufferings among themselves, tearing at one another, confessing, accusing, hurting, being hurt. They continually seek a universal and never-defined love without the benefit of understanding how ”love” operates outside the confines of the Bergman two-shot. The background—the world—stays in soft focus. Even when he chooses a subject that forces him to confront history, as he does in The Serpent’s Egg (1977), set in Berlin in 1923, world events become a foil against which his characters can be tested and destroyed. For Bergman, if history exists at all, it is a paranoid force that crushes rather than explains. As I noted earlier, his work is the contemporary consummation of melodrama, and makes clear the difficulties that need to be overcome by a filmmaker who would examine sexuality and its attendant psychology in other than a closed, melodramatic context.

77We have already seen some attempts at probing and questioning the limits and delimitations of sexuality, love, and the psychology of relationships. Solás’s film Lucía and Fassbinder’s work in general explore the way melodrama has deformed sexuality and how that form can be reworked so that both it and its content contribute to an understanding of how we are affected by it. The extraordinary thing about a film like Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit) is the way it takes the sexual orientation of its characters for granted and thereby removes much of the threat this might otherwise have. By placing its homosexual characters within the conventional melodramatic context of a poor workingman falling in love out of his class and suffering for it, Fassbinder makes form and content clash. His emphasis on the economic opportunism and class snobbery practiced by Fox’s middle-class lover, and the lover’s friends and family (including an obligatory dinner scene in which Fox appalls the company by the way he eats), places sexuality in a social perspective, demonstrating that emotional suffering is as much a product of class and social attitudes as it is of psycho-sexual attitudes and that oppression occurs on many levels simultaneously. A homosexual is oppressed by the culture as a whole because of his sexual choice and within the subculture he chooses is oppressed further by hierarchies and betrayals that duplicate the attitudes of the larger culture.

78Fox approaches the problem of linking subjectivity, sexuality, and the behavior of the society at large through a parody of melodramatic modes. Three other very different works offer alternate approaches. Godard’s Masculin-féminin (1966) explores various points of contact between the personal and the social worlds. Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) goes far beyond Fox in its examination of sexual oppression, developing a critique of the fascism of everyday life. Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris has become the reference point for the treatment of sexuality in contemporary cinema.

79From Breathless through Sauve qui peut (La vie), Godard has tried to figure out how a man and a woman could exist together. The ideal for his couples was always tendresse, a notion of mutual care and understanding often thwarted by the demands their own individuality made upon them and the demands upon that individuality made by others. The Godardian male was either too sensitive or too insensitive, the woman too independent or confused. By the time he reached Pierrot le fou (1965) he had run down most of the possibilities contemporary middle-class culture had to offer, and many of the formal possibilities his cinema had to offer in investigating the problem. He had invented new ways to confront it, forced the audience into a stance of objective contemplation, overlapped the concerns of the various couples he examined with impositions from the culture at large, counterpointed their lives with the intolerable directives on how to live those lives that came from the various commercial apparatuses of the culture (pimps in My Life to Live, advertising in A Married Woman, computerized control in Alphaville). In Pierrot the external directives are finally overwhelming. The inability of the Godardian male to deal with the intractability of an independent woman and discover an alternative to the romantic conflict of dominant and passive roles becomes destructive. Marianne, his gun-running girlfriend, betrays the film’s would-be hero, Ferdinand. He shoots her, paints his face blue, wraps his head in dynamite, admits his lunacy, proclaims ”a glorious death for a little man,” and before he can finish the words blows himself up. With the explosion, Godard may have hoped to wipe out the romantic longings of hapless men that had plagued his thinking and remain so much a part of the romantic tradition. His success was only partial. For one thing, in the film the characters’ spirits survive their destruction. In a final burst of romanticism, they meet in an apotheosis: the camera drifts skyward from the exploded Ferdinand and we hear his voice and Marianne’s as if they have met in heaven.

80This is a delightful learned allusion; the heavenly voices refer to events in a film by the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi. But they are also an indication of how difficult it was for Godard to throw off his romanticism. Despite his sensitivity he could not, and still cannot, deal with a situation in which his men and women struggle equally together. Only the Jane Fonda character in Tout va bien—the film in which Godard most successfully examined the way sexual roles are determined by social hierarchies— comes close to being a fully formed and eloquent individual who does not destroy her male partner. Otherwise, even in the most radical films of the late sixties and early seventies, where he adopted a feminist critique, there was still the sense that he was forcing himself into a rational stance on this particular issue—a stance so forced that he could easily slip out of it. Sauve qui peut returns to the perspective of Pierrot le fou. The film begins with an image of the sky, the camera panning left, back down to earth, returning to the realm of Pierrot and the same despairing examination of heterosexual relationships.

81This is not to say that Godard was completely at the mercy of romantic conventions. He always questioned them, examined them for their ironies and lies, and after Pierrot always attempted to see them as part of larger events within the culture. In Pierrot something important happens: allusions to the Vietnamese war make their appearance; and the ramifications of that war nag at Godard’s conscience and his characters’ in every film he makes from then to the mid-seventies, another obstacle to the withdrawal of a couple into themselves. In Masculin-féminin, the film that followed Pierrot, the war, the conflicts created by an awareness of a troubled culture and a violent society, provide a context for a more objective study of the romantic couple. Here Godard reverted to the small black-and-white image (Pierrot was in wide-screen color). The film is set in Paris (Pierrot—Godard’s North by Northwest—follows its couple through the country to the Mediterranean); its subjects are late adolescents, who are observed coolly, from a distance, in long gray shots, their dialogue struggling against the noises of cafés and traffic, their attempts at understanding themselves interrupted by people killing each other on the subways, knifing themselves on the streets, immolating themselves in protest against the war. Sections of the film are introduced with titles that destroy continuity and with the sounds of gunshots. There is an almost neorealist observation of individuals and their social environment; but unlike the neorealists, Godard does not see them integrally; each section introduces new distractions and strains on the main characters and their relationships. The focal figure is Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young man who works as a public opinion survey taker and who attempts to love Madeleine, a budding pop singer. Their love is continually imposed upon by violence, by the commercial world Madeleine inhabits, by the world of consumers imposed upon Paul in his work. In one sequence he interviews a celebrity, ”Mademoiselle 19 ans,” a vacuous young lady with vacuous responses, a woman rubbed clean of any personality and insight. Godard titles the sequence ”Dialogue with a Consumer Product,” and ends it with the sound of a ringing cash register.

Paul and Madeleine (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Chantal Goya). Masculin-féminin (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

  • 16 Godard, Masculine Féminine, ed. Pierre Billard and Robert Hughes (New York: Grove Press, 1969), pp (...)
  • 17 Ibid., 183-84.

82Masculin-féminin is a statement about intrusion, about the inability of couples to disengage themselves from the world and enter exclusive relationships. The random violence of that world, and even the gentle words of Paul’s revolutionary friend Robert, disallow comfort, demand attention. And in the end, Madeleine finds it impossible to give herself over to romance, while Paul discovers that his work confounds and confuses individuality, distorts his own ideas and those of the people he interviews. She is caught up in the pop world (and may also be involved in a lesbian affair); he seeks an interior wholeness: ”A philosopher is a man who pits his conscience against opinion: To have a conscience is to be open to the world. To be faithful is to act as if time did not exist. Wisdom would be if one could see life, really see, that would be wisdom.”16 But this is a dream of a past humanism that is no longer possible, for Paul or for Godard, because ”life” is not whole and open to a clear perception; time does exist and history demands attention to all its unresolvable fragments. To be open to the world is to receive the shocks of its random violence. The major act of perception would be to understand that this violence is in fact not random, but an expression of an economic and political system that does violence to its members in a variety of ways, from war to turning people into things whose major function is to consume. That we begin to consume each other is less of a mystery when we are allowed to see how small consumptions grow and become overwhelming. Paul is himself overwhelmed. He dies at the end of the film, though we don’t see it, only hear the reports given to the police by Madeleine and her friend. The death may have been suicide, or an accident. Paul wanted to take a photo of their new apartment; he stepped back to get a good composition and fell out the window. He died, that is, attempting to compose a view. For the ”children of Marx and Coca-Cola” an attempt to see the world in all its parts is dangerous, even destructive. The filmmaker can just barely keep one step ahead of the characters and their sufferings and attempt to see the jagged parts of their lives that they cannot fit together. The characters themselves are subjected to those parts and hurt by them. The last words of Madeleine, the last words in the film, are ”I don’t know... I’m not sure.”17

  • 18 Cf. Jim Hillier, ”Masculin-Féminin,” in The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Ian Cameron (New York: P (...)

83Masculin-féminin is a cold and funny film. The emotional and physical atrocities committed around the main characters are terrible only in their resonances, not their presentation. The dialogues of Paul, Robert, Madeleine, and Catherine are cool and detached, and the more intriguing for that. Godard (as always) allows us to listen and observe without directing our feelings. Though the film has been called grim and despairing, these are emotions that would have to be slipped into it by the viewer.18 As a reverie about potentials for despair, it does not look upon the potentials despairingly. Rather it sees them as material upon which to build perceptions of how individuals operate among themselves and others. Paul’s persistence is full of energy and delight, and his failure not tragic because its context is so clearly delineated. His failure in fact becomes our success and Godard’s. The film permits us to integrate those elements that act to disintegrate the characters. In Masculin-féminin Godard observes disintegration lovingly. He still has tenderness for his characters and hope for what his audience may learn from them. The tenderness vanishes in Weekend (1967), where the voraciousness of the consumer extends to cannibalism, and the human form, as well as human relationships, is picked clean of any imaginable gentleness.

84The cannibal metaphor, the devouring of the soul, was taken up years later by Fassbinder In a Year of Thirteen Moons is a film of such despair that only Fassbinder’s determination to regard his subject distantly, persistently, and with grim humor, to diminish emotional intensity by denying spectator identification with the characters, makes it bearable. More subjective than anything Godard has done, it was made as a response to a dreadful event in Fassbinder’s own life—the suicide of his lover—and it was made almost singlehandedly, written, photographed, and edited by the director. Perhaps it is a mark of Fassbinder’s talent that, given the personal nature of its origin and creation, the finished work does not stand as a subjective lament, nor does it indulge in the hermetic or obscurantist façade that is sometimes associated with ”subjective cinema.” Fassbinder was as antiromantic a filmmaker as any working today (matched only by Buñuel). Therefore, the pain suffered by the filmmaker and expressed in the film is situated objectively, and although the film studies the breakdown and death of an individual, that process occurs in a way that parallels a larger breakdown in social relations. Like all of Fassbinder’s films, it becomes an analysis of capitalism and the distortion of relationships created by that economic system on every level.

85The film is about mutilation and self-destruction. Its central character is a transsexual named Elvira (née Erwin, played by Volker Spengler, a frequent actor in Fassbinder’s films whose chameleon-like talent makes him hardly recognizable from one film to the next), a figure of such innocence that her/ his grotesqueness emerges not from what she has allowed to be done to his body but from the matter-of-factness with which she accepts it and allows it to destroy her. Elvira’s past is pieced together throughout the film in the various narrative episodes that roughly knit it together. As Erwin, she was married and had a child. Erwin went to work for, and fell in love with, a certain Anton Saitz, a man who was in a concentration camp during the war, wanted to go to America when he was released, and got as far as Frankfurt, where he became a small-time racketeer in the meatpacking business and ran a whorehouse along totalitarian lines. He is now an enormously powerful landlord, a ruler and a destroyer. He has become a fascist, an embodiment of that which once imprisoned him, and the password that gains one entrance to his presence is ”Bergen-Belsen.” ”Foreclosing is the big field with a real future,” Elvira is told by Anton’s guard when she goes to visit him in his skyscraper office after a long separation. Anton, who forecloses on his tenants, foreclosed on Elvira, took advantage of weakness and put her out of her body. When Erwin expressed his love, Anton told him it was too bad he was not a woman. So Erwin went off to Casablanca and returned as Elvira.

  • 19 Cf. Martyn Auty, ”A Fassbinder Suicide,” Sight and Sound, 49 (Autumn, 1980), 266.

86If the relationship between Saitz and Elvira parallels that of master and slave, on another level it parallels that of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis: a relationship of fraudulent sophisticate and childlike fool, user and abused. The association is made quite literal. In one of the most lunatic sequences in the film, when Elvira comes to confront Saitz, she discovers him and his lieutenants watching a videotape of a routine from a Martin and Lewis movie. The men prance about, mimicking the movements on the TV screen, and Elvira joins them. The sequence confirms Elvira’s status as passive follower and willing victim;19 it continues the bizarre, almost dreamlike aura that surrounds every episode in the film; and it climaxes a phenomenon of contemporary European cinema: the almost perverse love of Jerry Lewis by many a major cinéaste since the late fifties. Godard has stated that he admires Lewis as an auteur and as a composer of comic sequences, but it is in Fassbinder’s film that the darker side of the admiration appears. European intellectuals admire Lewis (more accurately, the Lewis persona) because he is such a perfect fool, with no sophistication, no self-awareness, no leavening to his simplemindedness other than an equally simpleminded sentimentality and childlike morality. No such characters exist in contemporary European film, nor in European literary history, where the character of the fool is almost always craftily insightful and wise. The admiration for Lewis is therefore made up of amazement and condescension, which in Fassbinder’s film is turned into pity and sadness. Although Saitz mimics Lewis’s antics, it is ultimately Elvira who is mocked as the Lewis surrogate and continually humiliated; while lacking Lewis’s protective silliness and innocence, she has a sentimentality that helps destroy her.

87In Masculin-féminin, the acts of destruction that surround the characters and finally involve them are, from the spectator’s point of view, dialectically constructive. That is, the filmmaker positions the spectator so that relationships can be made by understanding the unmaking of relationships that occur within the film. We are not permitted such a privileged positioning in Thirteen Moons. Fassbinder does not allow us into the fiction or let us lose sight of any of its elements; but neither does he allow us a place of intellectual and emotional security from which to judge it. To some extent this is due to the expressionist nature of the film, for here Fassbinder yields to that major tradition of his country’s cinema and subdues the usually rigorous Brechtian structure of his work. Every space that Elvira inhabits, every sequence of the film, echo the mutilation and disintegration of her self. The mise-en-scène is dark; each shot seems to have been made in available light with little enhancement. The viewer must often seek out the image, discern it, locate it, and then deal with the emotional terrors it contains, which reflect those of Elvira’s psyche. Early in the film, after being thrown out by a lover, knocked down by a car, and looked after by Zora, a whore who literally picks her up from the gutter, she visits the slaughterhouse in which she once worked and where she first knew Saitz. ”Blood and death give an animal’s life meaning,” she says in a kind of fascistic reflection that indicates the state of her confusion and damage.

88During the slaughterhouse sequence, Fassbinder intercuts shots of Elvira and Zora with shots of the killing and dismemberment of the cattle, while on the sound track Elvira comments on her past and recites hysterically the lines she used to read with her lover (who was an actor). The sequence spins off a number of allusions. Primarily it reflects, in a hideously comic manner, Elvira’s own butchered state, what she permitted to have done to her body; the way she allowed her personality to be devoured. The butchers in the abattoir cut the cattle into smaller and smaller bits as Elvira’s disembodied voice speaks of the transformation of her former lover from a would-be actor to ”the kind of man they tell us we’re supposed to be: active, willing to make decisions, independent,” while all the time he lived off her. By the time she recounts how he used to ask about the size of the penises of the men she slept with to support them, Fassbinder is cutting to the small remains of the cattle lying about the floor. Emotional and physical degradation are linked, and the obsession with physicality is given a brutal literalness.

  • 20 Eisenstein’s essay ”A Course in Treatment,” in Film Form, pp. 84-107, outlines his ideas on the us (...)

89The sequence calls to mind Georges Franju’s short film Le sang des bêtes, a documentary of slaughterhouses which begins with an ironic image of two lovers kissing in a pastoral setting. Even more it evokes the slaughterhouse montage in Eisenstein’s Strike. That sequence is purely political in nature: the killing of cattle is intercut with the killing of strikers by soldiers, and its political point is made by the brutality of both sets of images, the indication that workers are considered to be no better than cattle. The sequence in Thirteen Moons is not a montage in the Eisensteinian sense. All the action is set in one place and the actual montage is of image and spoken word. (This is a kind of montage that Eisenstein, in fact, encouraged for sound film.)20 If such a hybrid term can hold meaning, it might be called an expressionist montage. The state of Elvira’s body and mind is made present—perhaps suggested into presence—by the images of the slaughterhouse and her accompanying commentary. Instead of discrete images conflicting with each other, the slaughterhouse reflects Elvira’s subjective state, giving distressing meaning to her words.

90She has been and is being dismembered and consumed by the intolerable demands of sexual role-playing. Fassbinder and Spengler so construct her character that she becomes a screen on which are projected almost all the conflicting patterns of sexual and emotional manipulations that can be acted out by one person upon another. Erwin/Elvira has played most of them: man, woman, husband, father, worker, provider, passive lover, abused lover, chattel, willing surrenderer of identity, of sexuality, of personality. The slaughterhouse becomes a manifest image of the brutalities latent in the roles, a metaphor for the fascism of the spirit. Other versions of spiritual murder and dismemberment follow. Elvira seeks out Saitz and finds, across the street from his office building, a man who stares. He worked for Saitz until he got cancer of the kidney, and since Saitz cannot stand having sick people around, he was fired. For seventeen months he has stared at Saitz’s office every day from ten until six. In a long take, broken only by a shot of Saitz’s building, we see this man stand and stare and deliver himself of a monologue in which we learn of Saitz’s past and this man’s present as a starer, one more defiled individual whose impotence is manifested in his obsessive need to keep the cause of his defilement perpetually in sight, fetishizing the building of his former boss (who, as a landlord, is duly represented by a building), compounding his own status as an object.

  • 21 Stephen Prince directed my attention to the Schopenhauer allusion.

91Later, when Elvira finally enters Saitz’s building, she meets a black man in a lobby preparing to hang himself. The space is shadowy and cavernous, with a red light flashing on and off, creating the most dreamlike sequence in the film and, despite what happens in it, the most detached and contemplative. Because the setting is so dark and the events so strange, a distancing effect occurs, and because the two participants are so matter of fact the whole sequence takes on aspects of bizarre comedy, something in the manner of Samuel Beckett. The man goes about the business of setting up his noose; Elvira, in a black dress and veil, sits in a corner, eating bread and cheese, chatting with the suicide (commenting upon how campy it is to eat bread and cheese, recalling that Anton, the former meat packer, hated meat, and deciding that life would be very sad without a little nostalgia). Their discussion reveals further the self-loathing Elvira feels as well as the ease with which she accepts the words of others. The suicide delivers a ridiculous speech about life and death, a nihilist’s call (though based roughly on Schopenhauer) to end misery in the most direct way possible. ”By the way,” he says, ”it is wrong to see the negation of the will to live in terms of suicide as a negative act. On the contrary, negating the will to live is in itself an acceptance of the will, since negation means renouncing not life’s suffering but its joys. The suicide accepts life, rejects only the conditions under which it has been offered to him....” Elvira can only respond by saying, ”I think you better do it now.” He invites her to watch and carries out his task, swinging in the blinking red light.21

92I imagine that, for someone who has not seen this film, this description may confirm a suspicion that it, and perhaps all of the new German cinema, is unbearably grim. But even in this most despairing of films, Fassbinder, like his colleagues, like all of the filmmakers discussed here, refuses to subject his audience to unearned and unnecessary emotional stress or to a state of emotional complicity. The despair the film deals with is observed through expressionist blocks of grotesque exaggeration and ironic comment. Even at its most conventionally melodramatic, the film prevents any forcing of emotions that would allow us to evade confrontation with its images. The images instead negotiate these emotions with us, offering us not the emotions themselves but ways of comprehending them. At one point we learn about Elvira’s childhood, a bit of exposition that, in a conventional film, would make us secure by offering the ”motivation” for the current state of the hero. His father was in a concentration camp when Erwin was born, and his mother had the child brought up by nuns. A couple fell in love with Erwin and wanted to adopt him. That was impossible because he was a legitimate child and his father—who apparently never learned of the child’s existence—could not give his consent. The resulting tension turned Erwin from a cunningly affectionate child to a withdrawn little thief whom the nuns feared and hated. This atrociously touching and unhappy story is undercut by the telling. The information is provided by one of the nuns (played by Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder’s mother), who brought Erwin up and who tells the tale as the camera follows her pacing around the cloister, a copy of Schopenhauer under her arm. Zora, who has come with Elvira to learn about the past, is dressed in her prostitute outfit; Elvira is in a white hat and polka-dot dress. They make an unholy trio, with a fourth party present, figured in Saitz’s building, which looms over them.

Reflections of despair: Elvira (Volker Spengler). In a Year of Thirteen Moons (New Yorker Films)

93The sequence ends, appropriately enough, with Elvira swooning at the retelling of her past. We, however, learn very little but that she was unloved. In the telling, however, more elements of perversity are added to the narrative, more marks of Elvira’s disbarment from human community, and more reminders to the spectator of his or her own disbarment from a direct understanding of this character and the world she inhabits. The elements of the sequence refuse to yield rational and coherent information; the sentimental content of the nun’s tale is contradicted by the form in which it is told and we get, finally, no satisfying explanation of why Elvira has become what she is. Nothing here or in any of the film’s sequences offers comfort or affirmation of love, friendship, support, security, or even emotional continuity other than a basic and insistent sadness.

94When at one point in the film Fassbinder does introduce a familiar, domestic scene, he disrupts it by indicating how out of place it is. Elvira visits her wife and daughter, who are having a meal in a lovely, sunlit garden. It is one of the brightest sequences in the film, filled with domestic chatter. The mother wants Elvira to tell her daughter to eat more; they discuss what the daughter will do with her life. Elvira tells them her despair and asks if she can come back to them.

95But once again, a number of elements make this sequence both terribly sad and terribly ridiculous. Just prior to it, Elvira has brought Zora and Saitz back to her apartment. Immediately, the prostitute friend and the destroyer-landlord begin making love as Elvira watches: further humiliation that leads to further mutilation. Elvira attempts to deny her present state, cuts her hair off, dresses in men’s clothing, and goes off to her family. In that sunlit, domestic place, their first reaction upon seeing the reincarnated husband and father is laughter. The entire situation is skewed; the woman-father cannot find a center, a place of emotional safety, and this lack is echoed in the composition of the scene: when the daughter regains her composure and embraces her father the camera pans away from them slightly, unbalancing the frame. The sequence is as dark as every other event in which Elvira takes part, and no less expressionistic than the others, despite its sunniness. The domestic unit is as unreceptive to Elvira as any other, for her initial act of mutilation has cut off all chances for integration.

96But this does not imply that Fassbinder made a cautionary, moral-ridden film: if you have yourself castrated you deny nature and will live a life of such misery that it will only result in the ultimate castration, the removal of your life itself. Elvira is passive and pitiable, but she becomes part of a trauma greater than her own, a trauma at once psychological and political. She is the victim of fascism past and present, and all the characters of the film carry the spirit of Bergen-Belsen with them. (A glimpse of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on a television set confirms the extended metaphor.) It is no fanciful joke that this is Anton Saitz’s password, for the former concentration camp inmate and present Kapo of free enterprise manifests the camp’s spirit, and Elvira, like Saitz himself, remains its victim. But again a warning against reducing the film’s meaning is necessary, for it is not an allegory offering a simple proposition that we are all victims of fascism, suffering together in the great concentration camp of life. On some level Fassbinder wanted us to understand this, but he was not a maker of universal statements. He was rather the maker of large indiscretions, of unseemly and tasteless acts committed by one character against another or the self, acts that simply repeat the brutalities that are part of history and therefore part of the present. The ease with which these brutalities are submerged within the familiar patterns of melodrama makes it necessary for him and for us to wrench them out, reposition them so that they can be seen more discretely—or more indiscretely. They are not permitted to remain on the personal level of aberrant acts committed by perverse individuals. Fassbinder forces them into the context of their culture, and this makes them more disturbing than they would be if left as individual aberrations.

97During the last sequences of the film, as Elvira’s acquaintances come to her apartment and discover her body on the bedroom floor (she has committed suicide, though we do not see the act), with Zora and Saitz making love in the bed next to it, we hear her voice on the sound track delivering a long confessional. In it Fassbinder permits the expression of sentiments we are used to hearing in film. Elvira says her need for love is like a scream. She weeps and talks of her suffering: ”Love is... or was... hope, some kind of hope, I guess. I mean things like tenderness or maybe need... or desire. Maybe I wanted to find out what those words really mean….” What those words really mean for her are castration and death. ”As long as movies are sad, life remains fun,” says a character in The Third Generation. And Fassbinder must have his fun, or the pathos would overwhelm him and us. As Elvira’s voice incants her misery, the acquaintances gather, passing inspection by Saitz’s black guard who stands at the door. The nun who earlier told the sad tale of Elvira’s childhood comes up the stairs to the apartment. The guard frisks her.

98The fear of being overwhelmed is not the only thing that forced Fassbinder simultaneously to embrace melodrama and to push it away. He also needed to find out what there is in melodrama that still speaks to us about suffering without inviting us to share it (which obviates our understanding it) or directing us how and when to feel. In a Year of Thirteen Moons, like most of Fassbinder’s work, is disruptive in the extreme, much more than Godard’s. In this disruptiveness lies the desire that he shared with Godard to give the emotional life a context and provide a way of seeing connections. Anton Saitz—former concentration camp victim, whoremonger, butcher, landlord—is not just a convenient villain, any more than Elvira, who changed her sex on a whimsical suggestion, is a simple victim. The roles shift about easily in a society that provides justification and encouragement for the perpetuation of villainy and victimization. Psychology and sociology merge. Saitz victimizes as many people as possible in his role of grand landlord—”foreclosing is the big field, with a real future.” Elvira victimizes herself, mutilating her body and spirit, letting herself be devoured until there is nothing left but death. But her self mutilation and her suicide are the only irreversible acts in the film; everything else can be changed.

  • 22 In ”Fassbinder’s Sexual Politics,” p. 55.

99Fassbinder’s ”left-wing melancholy” (a phrase borrowed from Walter Benjamin by Richard Dyer)22 shows itself in his reveries upon oppression and the self-defeat that occurs when that oppression is internalized by the individual and thereby perpetuated so that it acts as a destructive force on all levels. His characters are not ”alienated” from society but are rather too much a part of it (and Fassbinder makes sure we see the connections), too ready and willing to play its hurtful games. In the cruelties visited upon them and that they visit upon each other are the clues as to how those cruelties might be avoided.

100Bernardo Bertolucci’s perspective is similar; his methods of inquiry utterly different. Neither melancholy nor perverse, he is more interested in broad gestures and intense confrontations than in distancing the spectator. He luxuriates in his mise-en-scène, opening the screen space to political or psychological investigations in which history and the individual struggle, with the individual usually losing. Time is often a central subject in Bertolucci’s work. Like Alain Resnais, whose characters are determined by the obsessive presence of time and memory, Bertolucci subjects his characters to structures of the past that help to define, if not explain, their actions and entrap them in their own past or that of others. This gambit is developed in The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), a film Bertolucci made for Italian television, and the one in which his lush and active camera style is first manifested. Based upon a Jorge Luis Borges piece, ”Theme of the Hero and Traitor,” it probes the Borgesian principle of imaginative slippage, the movements, sometimes barely perceptible, between various layers of the realities created by fiction and the perfectly undependable temporal relationships within those creations. Working in film, and influenced by his native neorealism, Bertolucci articulates these slippages in carefully defined images which create at once a strong physical presence and an uncertain temporal space.

101In the film, a young man, Athos Magnani, Jr., returns to his home town of Tara (the never-never land of Gone with the Wind) to seek information about his father, a great anti-fascist hero and martyr during the reign of Mussolini. He discovers that, far from being a hero, his father in fact betrayed the town, was probably a fascist spy, and when discovered as such by his friends, planned an elaborate theatrical death for himself, ”a legendary death of a hero.... All Tara will become a great theater.” He arranged for his friends to assassinate him during a performance of Rigoletto (as with Visconti, a major influence, the opera metaphor reigns over Bertolucci’s work), an assassination replete with literary devices, warnings, and prophecies. The plan seems to have worked, and too well, for Tara became locked into the moment of Magnani senior’s death, slipping out of history, confusing the man with the image he created for himself, existing in the eternal delusion of its fascist past. The delusionary and hallucinatory state of this existence outside time is expressed in a number of ways. First, the movement of the camera as it follows Magnani junior’s quest for the past is insistent and ominous—advancing before him as he walks through the town, enclosed by its buildings on either side; tracking with him along walls; and entrapping him even when it is held steady, as in an extraordinary set of shots in which we see two men talking to each other in closeup, while behind them in the night Athos approaches from the distance with his bicycle. When he gets up to them, Bertolucci cuts to a complete 180-degree reverse shot of the two old men, still talking face to face, though their faces are now on opposite sides, as Athos retreats in the distance. (The so-called 180-degree rule constitutes a fundamental stricture in American filmmaking. A cut must never be made 180 degrees across the compositional plane to the ”other side” of the image, for this would be inexplicable to the audience. Bertolucci, along with many another European filmmaker, relishes the opportunity to ”break” this rule and thereby break the illusory spatial continuity of the American style.)

102Within the foreboding and seductive visual design of the film, Bertolucci does other things to impress upon us the town’s drop from time. In the flashbacks with which Magnani junior pieces the puzzle together, the characters do not change in age, and the actor who plays Magnani junior plays the father as well. ”Present” and ”past” will occur within the space of the same shot, or collide in a montage. This is not merely technical gimmickry; in fact Bertolucci transcends his considerable technical facility to create something like a dream vision—a dream based not in the subjectivity of a single individual, but in the shared aberration of a group who impose their dream on an intruder. Young Athos cannot escape his father or the paralyzing myth his father created. At the end of the film, Athos junior waits for the train that will take him from Tara. The loudspeaker announces its increasing delay, and the camera tracks along the tracks, which become increasingly overgrown with weeds. Athos does not leave. He may not even have arrived, perhaps has existed there continually, entangled with his father in the same web.

  • 23 A Married Woman in Godard: Three Films, trans. Susan Bennett (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. (...)
  • 24 This, of course, is a basic insight of Hannah Arendt; cf. The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York (...)

103In Godard’s A Married Woman, someone recounts a story told him by a Monsieur Rossellini, about a parade along the Champs Elysées of former concentration camp victims, dressed up in their old striped prison uniforms. ”Ten years after. Well, naturally, they weren’t still as thin as skeletons like when they came out of Dachau, or Mauthausen. They had eaten, they’d earned money since then... Of course, they were living normally, they’d got fat... It just didn’t look right on them. Memory had got it all wrong, because they just didn’t remember that they had changed....”23 The fallacy of historical memory intrigues both Fassbinder and Bertolucci, though in very different ways. One success of fascism is its ability to make people forget about it; its brutality is so enormous that it is difficult to believe when it occurs and readily forgotten when past.24 Many European filmmakers attempt to refresh the memory, correct the fallacies, and remind us of the reality of its presence then and now. Fassbinder demonstrates in film after film the fascism of everyday life. In The Spider’s Stratagem, Bertolucci alludes to fascism as a web of betrayal, theatrical gesture, and lies that entraps everyone permanently. In the films that followed—The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris—Bertolucci deals in different ways with the realities and memories of fascism: in a re-creation of history in the first film; displaced and confused in the contemporary world in the second. In each this subject is filtered and reflected through sexuality.

104The Conformist is one of a group of films, beginning with Rome, Open City and of which Visconti’s The Damned is a major example, that attempt to discuss fascism as a manifestation of perverted or misaligned sexuality. One source for this is perhaps Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism as well as the historical realities of Nazi experimentations, eugenics, and fascism’s obsessively male-centered ideology. Fascism is an ideology of denial and destruction, the romance of sacrifice and conquest brought to a climax in the abjuring of any human quality but the ability to kill and die. In truth it does not emerge from aberrant sexuality nor lead to it. Aberration occurs in its turning sexuality, as it turns any other human activity, into a thing to be used in a destructive way. Fascists are not degenerates (that is too easy an excuse) but the cause of degeneration; yet sexual perversity remains a favored means of explaining fascism or demonstrating its effects.

105Rossellini does not make much of the matter in Rome, Open City, beyond allowing his Nazi commandant to be fey. Visconti in The Damned, however, attempts to define Nazism as an incremental series of sexual perversions. Bertolucci is more subtle. His conformist is an ordinary Italian fascist who, fearing he is outside the bourgeois norm of sexual behavior, decides that the best way to prove his normalcy is to work for the party. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a little man who recalls a homosexual incident as a child during which, as he remembers, he shot the man who attempted to seduce him. His adult response to this event is a lunge toward respectability, away from his drug addict mother and his father in a lunatic asylum (he was maddened by his own early contact with the fascists—he once met Hitler) and into the arms of a dull middle-class woman and the party, which gives him a job as petty spy, finger-man, and assassin.

106The narrative content of the film has the proper components of political melodrama: an anguished protagonist with a disturbing past; an assignment to kill a Resistance worker living in Paris who was his professor in college; two sexual interests, his own wife and the professor’s, who offers herself both to Clerici and to his wife in order to save her husband. Rather than squelch the melodrama, Bertolucci instead internalizes it, makes it part of the perceptual pattern of the central figure, creating a complex first-person point of view. First-person narrative in film is not the same as in literature; we do not see ”through” Clerici’s eyes but rather are permitted to inhabit his world with his sensibilities, perceive it in a manner that is analogous to his own state of mind. And since that mind is caught in a shadowy world of repressed desire and misdirected energies, all of its activities colored by an uncertain perception of the past, the narrative develops by means of perceptual dislocation, contemplating an individual who sees things only partially and misunderstands the little he sees.

  • * Influenced by Welles, The Conformist, and to lesser extent Last Tango, have them-selves had a great (...)

107Bertolucci constructs a complex time scheme for his character, beginning his narrative in the midst of things, in a film noir hotel room in Paris complete with blinking neon sign outside where Clerici awaits final directions for the political drama he hopes to enact. The drive to the place where the assassination will occur, a purposive movement through a wintry landscape during which Clerici and Manganiello, the agent assigned by the party to watch over him, discuss their job, provides a frame into which are inserted flashbacks—in achronological order—that gather together the incidents leading to this moment. The incidents themselves are disruptive and disrupted, visually disorienting, some of them bordering on the surreal. Bertolucci adapts three seemingly unadaptable styles and mixes them within his own mise-en-scène: the temporal montages of Resnais, the expressive architecture of Antonioni, and the vertiginous movements and engulfing spaces of Welles—particularly the Welles of The Trial (made in 1962, attacked by critics, unknown by audiences, but an influence on directors such as Godard, Herzog, Fassbinder, and Bertolucci).* Out of the mix, Bertolucci develops images of confusion and blindness and fragments of memories in reflections and half-light. Clerici is introduced to a party official in a radio studio where three women imitate the Andrews sisters and the reflection of a blind man (Clerici’s friend and political guide) broadcasting Fascist Party propaganda that he reads with his fingertips can be seen on the studio glass. The images obscure figures and disorient the viewer; together with the narrative they reflect Clerici’s disoriented state of mind. He goes to confession, where he recalls the childhood seduction by a chauffeur (Pierre Clementi) with flowing hair in images of long corridors and empty rooms, of sexual arousal and the shooting of his seducer. The priest takes enormous interest in the crime. Clerici assures the priest he wants now to atone, to build ”a normal life” with a middle-class girl. ”I’m confessing today for the sin I will commit tomorrow. Blood washes away blood. Whatever price society demands from me I will pay.” The priest asks him if he belongs to a secret organization or a subversive group. ”No, no. I’m a member of the organization which hunts down subversives.” ”Then you are absolved of all your sins.”

108It is the illogic of this kind of interchange that informs the film, an illogic that is chosen as logic by the fascist mind, with the result that it blanks out a clear understanding and coherent reading of experience. Bertolucci finds a controlling metaphor for Clerici’s confused perceptions in Plato, in the great myth of the cave from The Republic, the story of chained prisoners facing a wall on which are projected the shadows of real objects carried behind the backs of the prisoners by their captors. Clerici wrote his thesis on the subject and its explication forms the central set piece of the film, where Clerici and his former professor confront each other in a room and discuss the myth of the cave as their movements and the camera’s in and out of shadow and light echo the words of the myth. It is a bravura passage in which the filmmaker calls attention to his own clarity of vision at the expense of the characters and by so doing focuses attention on the formal execution of the film, its thematic content, and the illusory quality of Clerici’s life. He is one of Plato’s prisoners, accepting as real his own shadowy memories, assuming the chains of an ideology built on falsehoods.

109In his self-imposed blindness, Clerici sees things both he and we cannot be sure we are seeing. The shifting patterns of light and shadow in the sequence in which he and his professor discuss Plato, the movement of the characters in and out of silhouette, express the shifts in Clerici’s own perceptions, shifts and confusions which Bertolucci occasionally allows us to share. For example, Anna (Dominique Sanda) turns up in the narrative twice before her main appearance as the professor’s wife. At one time Clerici sees her lying across the desk of a fascist official in an enormous hallway that dwarfs the figures. On his way to Paris, when he stops to get further information about his assignment, he sees her again, this time as a prostitute in a strange museum-cum-brothel, where they embrace as she pronounces herself mad. There is no explanation given for her appearance in these two places, nor even any narrative assurance that it is supposed to be the same woman (though it is clearly the same actress, and Clerici tells Anna he met a woman who looked like her). As a visual enigma it is another echo of Clerici’s emotional dislocation, the way in which he looks at all women as whores, and the way Anna presents herself as a whore in her attempts to prevent Clerici from murdering her husband.

110She needn’t have tried, for Clerici proves finally to be a simple coward, incapable of assassinating anyone or anything but his own conscience and memory. Manganiello, the good soldier, is left to carry out the task. ”For my money, cowards, pederasts, Jews are all the same,” he tells Clerici in disgust. ”If it was up to me I’d line them all against the wall. Better, kill them at birth.” Bertolucci is attracted to this bizarre murderer, this unthinking executor of orders, no doubt because there is no perversity to his actions, no apparent or hidden motives as with Clerici. He is not mysterious or devious and therefore perfectly understandable for what he is, a fascist killer. But the two make a fine pair. In fact, there are two fine pairs; Manganiello and Clerici, Clerici and the professor. Clerici is caught in the middle, right and left surround him; he is finally incapable of attaching himself to either; and like many a centrist gets destroyed by the movement around him. At a dance to which Clerici and the professor go with their wives (a sequence introduced by the camera’s observing them next to a picture of Laurel and Hardy as if to emphasize Clerici’s bumbling relationship to his former mentor as well as Manganiello, who watches them), he gets caught up in a swirl of bodies, drowning in the middle of activity, swept along in movement he wants no part of. That he seems to want to be part of the fascist movement and abjures the professor’s Resistance work (Bertolucci himself does not seem to approve of the way the professor works, for he is depicted as weak, living in some luxury in Paris while his colleagues are imprisoned in Italy) only further indicates his passivity. Too frightened to act against the majority, he yields to it, though is still unable to act and in the end appears neither enigmatic nor confused, but merely despicable.

111The assassination takes place in the snow. The professor and his wife are trapped by Manganiello on the road. Clerici sits paralyzed in his car as Manganiello’s men stab the professor (in a sequence that, despite its setting, recalls the stabbing of Caesar in the Forum), then run down and shoot his wife, who is unable to get Clerici out of his car to aid her. This is the point to which the film’s various time sequences lead, the point where all of Clerici’s confusions and self-delusions are manifested in further self-delusion, confusion, and murder. (”Murder and melancholy,” intones Clerici’s father in the lunatic asylum, yielding up his arms to a straightjacket.) It is a sequence that simultaneously clarifies and further disturbs our perception. The time leaps forward some years to the fall of Mussolini. We see Clerici, his wife, and a little daughter in a poor flat. The sequence is an imitation, a kindly parody even, of neorealism and its squalid apartments and poor tenants. The flat is dark; there is a crucifix on the wall. An old man sits in the corner cradling a chicken on his lap. Clerici, older and plumper, puts his daughter to bed in a room with clouds painted on the walls. The radio announces Mussolini’s downfall. The lights go out. Clerici goes out to the streets, ”to see a dictatorship fall” and to meet his old friend, the blind propagandist, Italo. Once outside, the hallucinatory style that marks so much of the film returns. Lights flicker and swoop around the dark streets. Crowds flow by; a stone head of Mussolini is dragged through the streets.

Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) at the dance: repressed, isolated. The Conformist (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

112As Clerici talks to Italo, telling him to remove his Fascist Party badge (”something has stuck to you”), he passes a familiar figure sitting in a wrecked courtyard with another man. It is Lino, the chauffeur, the man Clerici believes attempted to seduce him as a child and whom he thought he had killed. As Clerici confronts him, the camera tracks nervously around them in the dark by the fire the two gay men have lit for warmth. Clerici becomes hysterical and shouts at Lino that he is an assassin, that he killed the professor. Clerici’s past—the ”motivation” for his life—has come back and is now given the blame for his own bad conscience. His hysteria mounts and he denounces Italo as well. Lino flees. A crowd marches through and, like the dancers earlier, surrounds Clerici, sweeping Italo away and leaving Clerici alone with the other gay man in the dark. The camera, from the other side of an iron fence, tracks slowly to Clerici, who sits by a fire, his back to us. In the last shot of the film, Clerici turns toward the bars of the gate that separates him from our own gaze and looks, his face lit by the firelight.

113These final images suggest again the myth of the cave, and Clerici is left imprisoned by shadows and his own bad memory. The images offer an easy reading and a simple explanation: a repressed homosexual has sublimated his insecurities into vicious political activity. But this is not enough. Certainly men have killed out of the anxieties of their own homophobia, but Bertolucci is not interested in presenting the case history of someone pathologically ill. He uses Clerici’s sexual terrors as a place from which to begin an analysis rather than as the end of it, as a site of confusion that initiates a series of willful misinterpretations, wrong choices, and a desire for passive absorption into the ideological mainstream. One of the paradoxes of fascism is that it requires enormous cultural passivity for its brutalities to exist. Individuals must yield unquestioningly and agree that wrong choices are correct ones, that force and fear will gain for them what their own active engagement in political life will not. Shadows on the wall are accepted as real events and chains are mistaken for freedom. Clerici is indeed like one of Plato’s prisoners, living in a perceptual half-light, willing to accept the darkness and confuse cowardice and murder with a normal life.

114Paul (Marlon Brando) in Last Tango in Paris is Clerici’s precise opposite. He actively pursues not an entrance into, but an escape from, bourgeois life. In the pursuit he makes enormous errors, the creator of the film makes enormous errors, and this study of withdrawal into sexual anarchy becomes a male fantasy of a lunge for power and a desperate loss. But the mistakes of the film are only apparent as tracings beneath a powerful surface of rich images that attempt to articulate a web of despair. As in so many of the films we have been discussing, Bertolucci begins with the assumption that the contemporary world is, to a person of any sensitivity, a place of sadness and isolation, intractable to the spirit, resistant to intellect and emotions. The very first image of Last Tango (after the credits, behind which are portraits by Francis Bacon of distorted and anguished male and female figures) is a violent booming of the camera to Paul, who stands under the roar of the Paris Métro, hands over his ears, shouting, ”Fucking God!” A middle-aged American in Paris whose wife has just violently killed herself, he is a figure of desolation, a heterosexual version of Fassbinder’s Elvira, emotionally mutilated, his coherency destroyed.

115But unlike Elvira and, more important, unlike Clerici, Paul does not seek a fruitless conciliation with the destroying world. Instead he attempts to withdraw completely into anonymous, solipsistic sexuality, to live in defiance of societal order and ritual, the nicety of ”relationships” and the conventions of romance. His partner is Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a young girl and erstwhile free spirit, willing at first to engage with a stranger; more ambivalent and confused as they go on. Both attempt to find a solace from the unconscionable demands of a bourgeois life. Paul was a wanderer in the world until he married Rosa, who owned a poor Parisian hotel that was little better than a whorehouse. He was her helper in proprietorship; he shared her with another man; he was, it is implied, sexually at her mercy; and his final humiliation was her suicide. Jeanne is the daughter of the French military middle class; her father fought against the Algerians in their war for independence. At the moment of her meeting Paul she is attempting to settle her own life by marrying Tom, a filmmaker, a hilarious parody of a New Wave film fanatic played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who parodies the persona he himself created in many a Truffaut and Godard film.

  • * Both played by old neorealist actors: Marcel by Massimo Girotti, who played the lover in Ossessione (...)

116The narrative of Last Tango is built from a series of confrontations and humiliations as Paul and Jeanne use each other to escape from a past and present made inescapable and inevitable by these very attempts to escape them. Paul tries to construct a sexual sanctuary for himself and Jeanne in an enormous flat in the Rue Jules Verne, a fantasy world bathed in shadow and golden light, where the only responsibilities will be to the penis and vagina. It will be a world of games and confessional and surrender of the self. Like any fantasy world, it does not hold up to the demands of reality, and whenever they leave their room, both become reabsorbed in the very demands they attempted to avoid. Jeanne’s fiancé makes her into an object for his camera, turning their life into cinéma vérité. His superficiality is a direct (and perhaps too obvious) contrast to Paul’s intensity and desire to deny any external impediments to what he regards as unsullied feeling and expression. For his part, whenever he leaves the room Paul is confronted by his immediate past and its refusal to yield to his comprehension. He has painful meetings with his mother-in-law and his wife’s lover, Marcel,* who wears a robe identical to one that Rosa gave Paul. He inhabits a small room, clipping newspaper items, chinning to keep himself fit. He shows Paul where Rosa clawed the wallpaper with her fingers in her unnamed and never-explained despair. ”I wonder what she ever saw in you?” Paul asks him, misdirecting his inquiry. He does not understand that Marcel, isolated and withdrawn, chinning instead of fornicating, is his own mirror image. Later, confronting his wife’s corpse decked out in hideous makeup in a room full of flowers, he is once again confronting himself, in a further attempt to understand his own subjectivity. ”Who the hell were you?” he asks her. He says that during their life together he felt like one of her hotel guests. He curses her and asks her forgiveness, crying: ”I’m sorry. I don’t know why you did it. I’d do it too if I knew how....” And he is called away by another of the hotel’s ”guests,” a whore whose client he scares away, runs after, and beats up, as if he were attempting to relive or settle his past and deal violently with its sexual torments.

A figure of desolation. Paul (Marlon Brando) in Last Tango in Paris (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

117Although Paul attempts to eradicate the violent enigmas of his wife and his past while in the room with Jeanne, all he can do is relive them, acting out his anger and self-hatred with her. Their sexuality is briefly joyous, and then cruel. Paul attempts to be a destroyer of bourgeois ideology, to grind into detritus the demands of propriety and manners, of self-importance, of sanctified relationships and the forced stability of families. He would like to see himself in fact as an atom smasher of the nuclear family, breaking its repressiveness and sanctified hypocrisy. He sodomizes Jeanne and forces her to repeat as he reaches climax: ”holy family... church of good citizens... the children are tortured until they tell their first lie... where the will is broken with repression... where freedom is assassinated by egotism... the family... you fucking family....” But his invective is contradicted by its physical form. Paul assaults the repressiveness of the family by assaulting another person; he attacks repression by being repressive himself. His anarchic violence against societal order is misdirected and finally as hurtful as that order itself. In his withdrawal, in his attempt to make Jeanne into an object of scorn and an echo of his own self-loathing, he allows his emotional turmoil to turn into the very thing he wishes to destroy. The bourgeois love he professes to despise will soon become the love he wishes once more to experience.

118In neglecting to deal with Jeanne as a discrete individual, he neglects the consequences of her personality reasserting itself. In the sequences that follow Paul’s attack on Jeanne’s body and the body of the family, a number of significant events occur. We see Jeanne and Tom acting for Tom’s cameras in a boat. He tells her he will marry her and places about her neck a life preserver with the name ”L’Atalante” printed on it. She immediately throws it overboard and it sinks like a shot. L’Atalante is the name of Jean Vigo’s 1934 film of strained lyrical romanticism, which carries with it an aura, a legend perhaps, of fragile beauty by a fragile artist who died before it was even released. The work carries as well some of the seeds of Last Tango itself in its exploration of the romantic couple, the education of a young girt by an old man, its melodrama of love lost and rediscovered, Jeanne’s act of throwing overboard the life preserver with its sacred name proclaims the death of romantic fantasy. Paul attempts to destroy and then revive conventional romance, without success; Jeanne consummates its end by destroying Paul and embracing the security offered by Tom. Bertolucci cuts from the sinking life preserver to Jeanne’s mother beating the dust from her late husband’s military jacket on the balcony where Jeanne will eventually shoot Paul. Jeanne puts on the father’s uniform, looking every bit like a depraved Shirley Temple. The very family Paul attempted to curse out of existence is reincarnated before our eyes as daughter and father merge before the mother, herself startled by the transformation.

119When Jeanne returns to Paul he practices his last bit of humiliation and self-abasement. He torments her with a dead rat on their bed. She tells him she is in love with someone, and Paul accuses her of seeking an impossible security. He has her thrust her fingers up his rectum as he curses her and reviles himself, demanding she confront death to free herself of loneliness. This act precedes the sequence in which Paul visits the corpse of his wife, and the structure of events forms a narrative pattern of Paul’s fall and Jeanne’s ascent. When Paul is gone she is momentarily distraught and lonely, and invites Tom to see the apartment that has, until now, been inviolate. Inside they talk of marriage and children (she will name a boy Fidel, he will name a daughter Rosa—after Rosa Luxemburg, though, ironically, Rosa was the name of Paul’s wife), Bertolucci treats the invasion of the sanctuary from a distance. The apartment seems huge and cold. Jeanne and Tom’s discussion of becoming adult and acting serious sounds ridiculous within that space where Paul attempted to recover from the wounds of adulthood. They decide the apartment is not for them.

120The apartment is for no one. It was all along an imaginary space, with golden light and strange, draped objects, guarded over by a concierge who laughed maniacally. It was an expression of Paul’s fantasy and purgation. Once entered by someone else, it is just a huge ugly place. And once Paul encounters Jeanne outside it, the privilege it offered him, the sanctuary from polite middle-class manners and discourse, vanishes. Back in the world with Jeanne, Paul becomes reinfected by the romantic disease he attempted to cure in the quarantine the apartment offered. The dance hall they visit in the film’s penultimate sequence offers images of paralyzed, polite sexual ritual, sterile, decorous, and bizarre. It is too much for Paul, who bares his backside to the offended judges of the last tango. But it is more than his ass that he bares; he makes the mistake we least expect from him, and bares his soul to Jeanne. He announces his love and asks to live with her. ”In your flophouse?” she asks. ”What the hell difference does it make if I have a flophouse or hotel or a castle? I love you. What the fuck difference does it make?” It is a question that echoes back through every romantic melodrama ever filmed, the lover’s statement that should (and in those films usually does) transcend every reality: ”I love you. What difference does anything else make?” Of all the moral frauds committed by the movies, this stands among the greatest. That Paul falls for it only emphasizes the difficulty of overcoming its seductiveness and indicates how much emotional need falls into pre-established patterns. The absurdity of his statement is emphasized by the response of the outraged judges of the dance contest to his excuse for his indecorous behavior. ”It’s love,” he tells them. ”But it’s a contest,” a judge responds. ”Where does love fit in? Go to the movies to see love.”

  • 25 Quoted by Roger Greenspun, ”Phantom of Liberty: Thoughts on Fassbinder’s Fist-Right of Freedom,” F (...)

121Fassbinder once wrote, ”... I am more convinced than ever that love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression .”25 The romantic love ritualized and stereotyped by film demands a hierarchical order. One member of the couple, most often the male, takes control, the other a relatively passive role. The stereotype demands as well that certain culturally prearranged moves occur. Love leads to marriage, which leads to the construction of a family, which removes itself from wider contact with the society. The exclusivity of the couple and the demands upon it to raise children, to work, to consume, recapitulate and further the order of society. Individuals are removed from ‘concern for the operation of society and locked into a concern for the operation of the family. Within the family, the larger repressive modes of the culture are mirrored, and hierarchies, rules, restrictions are taught, practiced, perpetuated. The love that Paul and Jeanne first attempt to practice seems to deny this process. Though a withdrawal, it is an anarchic one, seeking to reject the recapitulative roles society demands. When Paul decides to break this pattern and impose the established one, Jeanne refuses. She has decided already to give herself over to those demands with Tom, for whom she is an object to be filmed.

  • 26 Cf. Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality, p. 144. My reading of the film is close to Mellen’s.
  • * The placing of the gum is one of those fine Brando gestures, the kind that details a character and (...)

122Tom is as domineering, in his own way, as Paul; but it is a safer domination. The humiliations he inflicts on Jeanne are of a lesser order and not as physically or emotionally threatening. Jeanne’s reactions to Paul’s proclamations of love are panic and violent refusal. While she entertains his aggressive introspections in the anonymity of their apartment as a kind of adventure, once that aggressiveness is put at the service of a public proclamation of ”normal” love, it is Jeanne’s turn to withdraw. She indulges in her own final, anarchic, ”anti-social” gesture and masturbates Paul while they sit at a table in the dance hall, an act of rejection and farewell, which Bertolucci emphasizes by having his camera arc around them and pull away, leaving them surrounded by empty tables.26 Jeanne leaves and Paul pursues her to her mother’s apartment. His new-found romantic litany continues: ”I ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia and now I found you. And I love you.” He asks her name for the first time (anonymity was one of the games they played in the apartment) and as she tells him she shoots him with her father’s gun. Paul staggers out on the balcony, calls out, ”Our children... our children,” places his chewing gum under the balcony railing, and dies in a fetal position.*

123During the final confrontation, Paul has put on Jeanne’s father’s military cap, assuming, momentarily, the guise of the kind of figure most repugnant to him. The gesture calls forth a Freudian reading—and beyond that a mythic one—suggesting that Paul assumes, despite himself, the role of father, the dominating, destructive male ruler. Jeanne’s killing him could therefore be interpreted as transcending the local narrative to become a kind of ritual destruction of the Fisher King. Francis Ford Coppola attempts to recreate just such an archetype in Apocalypse Now when he has Willard cut down Kurtz (Marlon Brando again) and recycle the pattern of rule. But such a reading overgeneralizes Last Tango. It is clear that Paul does expand from the lost, desolate, diminished figure he is at the beginning of the film to a man confident enough to want to re-establish the pattern of domesticity that almost destroyed him in the first place. That his reassertion of dominance scares Jeanne is clear; she kills Paul because he is too overpowering, the way her father was; the way fathers are. But Paul also kills himself. The rush of melodrama that carries his renewed romantic emotions sweeps away the memory of what his past romantic emotions did to him. That he begins talking like the eternal film lover—”I ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia and now I found you. And I love you”—is too much for Jeanne, the film, or the viewer to bear. The reestablishment of romantic discourse is the most comforting thing in the film, but it breaks into a context that has been contradicting that discourse and parodying it. The sudden appearance of that discourse demands a violent reaction. It is not too far fetched to say that it is the film that kills Paul, eliminates him for making the mistakes it has been trying to expose.

124This reading has attempted to save the film, and perhaps makes it more insightful than it really is. Godard removes his Paul from Masculin-féminin quietly, as an absence. We do not see his death. His absence, like his presence, is a complex of personal and social confusions, a sign of his inability to find a model through which to perceive his world and avoid succumbing to it. Bertolucci’s Paul does discover a model—romantic passion—and it undoes him with a violence that assures a passionate response from the spectator and runs the risk of deflecting us from the larger concerns of the film. Last Tango is a conflicted work; looked at with some dispassion, we find that it never does depart very far from the romantic model that Paul so fully embraces at the end. Formally, Bertolucci creates a design of such sumptuous movement and grace (as opposed to the cool and distant observation in Masculin-féminin) that our perceptions are directed into the soul of Paul even more than they are into the tortured hearts of many other sufferers in film fiction. In a word, we are asked to identify with Paul to the exclusion of everyone else in the film, Jeanne most particularly. Last Tango is, simply put, a sexist film, in which the emotionally tortured man is allowed to be the focus of our sympathies, and the woman given the role of object through which he can work out his sorrow and destroyer when his sorrow turns to affection for the object. There is no question that Last Tango is a political film that examines sexuality and domesticity as part of the order of culture, seeing them as reflecting the repression and brutality of that order. There is a great question, however, as to whether Bertolucci has great success in clarifying the connections, in seeing exactly how intimate relations mirror larger struggles for power and domination in the manner of Godard or Fassbinder.

125There is no real indication that he is aware that, even in their withdrawal from the world, Paul and Jeanne are mirroring the same dominant/passive roles of the world at large. Put another way, Bertolucci and Brando (who is very much responsible for the character, which was originally meant to be played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) are deeply concerned with the wounding and eventual destruction of the male by the vagaries of female emotions. The abuse given to the character of Jeanne can be seen as a way of taking revenge for the damage allegedly caused by those emotions. Jeanne is most closely associated with the destructive order. Riot police are on the streets when we first see her, and her donning of her father’s uniform completes the association that is climaxed when she kills Paul with her father’s gun. There is only a glimmer of an awareness of the male responsibility in the destructive process (aside from the generalized and ghostly figure of the father). In one sequence, Jeanne, nude, goes through the pockets of Paul’s clothes and pulls out a razor. It is a moment when the audience is tantalized in a Hitchcockian manner. We know that Rosa killed herself in a violent and bloody way; we have seen the bloody bathroom. It is not clear whether the razor is the suicide weapon, but Jeanne’s finding it in Paul’s pocket makes it clearly threatening, particularly because she is naked (the image of a naked woman and a razor or knife is a central film icon of misogyny). This sequence of discovery is built up in such a way as to suggest that Paul is a physical danger to Jeanne, a suggestion that is carried through later in the sequence when we see Paul stropping the razor so that he can shave with it, while in the foreground of the shot, we see Jeanne’s nude torso. Nothing further happens, as far as the razor is concerned (although Jeanne does ask, half in jest, whether he is going to cut her up). But in this same sequence Jeanne says that Paul hates women. His response immediately diverts this crucial insight and puts us back on his side: ”Well, either they always pretend to know who I am, or they pretend that I don’t know who they are. And that’s very boring.”

126Whenever possible, responsibility is removed from Paul, and this allows unacknowledged tensions to develop in the film’s crucial arguments. Bertolucci understands that the agonies of romantic love are reflections of the patriarchal order, but he has difficulty creating a female character who might provide a response to that order. Jeanne accepts it as a given; Paul suffers from its burden but cannot shake it off. The difficulties Bertolucci has in clarifying this social-sexual political complex diminish the film, which is a pity, for Last Tango deals with the intensities and complexities of heterosexuality with less exploitation and more passionate analysis than almost any other film. That the analysis falters on Bertolucci’s inability to structure a female response to sexuality and the emotions that surround it that is equivalent to the response of his male character should not come as any surprise. No male filmmakers are able to do this. Bertolucci sees the oppressive structure of the culture at large and the destructive powers of the romantic myth; but he cannot quite link them, and no matter how clearly he sees the threat of male domination, he seems unable to rid himself of the old notion that woman is the ultimate destroyer. Neither can he rid himself of a certain melodramatic intensity. Last Tango sheds most of the modernist accoutrements that allow Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist to negotiate with the audience an understanding of the intricate relationships of consciousness and history. Both of those films dealt with fascism as a counterpoint between historical circumstances and individual perceptions of and reactions to those circumstances. The fascism dealt with in Last Tango is muted and removed, present only in the ghost of the father and the idea of societal repression that looms over Paul’s withdrawal from the world and his reentry into it as a reborn, and therefor doomed, romantic.

127Bertolucci, like Visconti before him, finally gave over to the melodrama of violent emotion, rather than confronting those emotion and investigating them. We have seen that one reason for the failure of 1900 was a loss of perspective; in a film about history, individual conflicts were allowed to eclipse the history they should have em bodied. Luna (1979) fails because the filmmaker lost all perspective on the individuals he created, foundered in their emotions, presuming that what he found interesting in an opera singer with an incestuous desire for her drug-addicted son would also interest an audience. The resulting film moves wildly between sensationalism, hysteria, and contemplation, unable to determine a consistent structure for observing its characters, only occasionally managing to capture an appropriate detail of gesture or create a disorienting movement or cut. There are moments of insight and visual acuity, but Bertolucci cannot move Luna beyond its sensational subject matter, and its lack of distance and analysis is typical of much commercial European cinema in the late seventies and early eighties. Bertolucci did not care to maintain the impassioned, deeply political structures of his early films. He went through an Orientalist stage and, with films like The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha, aimed at spectacle, exploitative eroticism, and banality.

128With the first stage of the modernist/Brechtian movement over, and with commercial European filmmakers returning to relatively safe structures and themes, serious cinema began to regress. The passion for cinema to scrutinize the world and clarify the relationship of people to it and to each other peaked in the years right after the May events of 1968, when that passion spilled, for a moment at least, into the world itself. When the student and worker uprisings led nowhere, however, there was a slow but steady movement back to introspection, in cinema and about cinema. While the introspection about film created new theoretical models and important insights into the connections between film, spectator, and ideology, filmmakers themselves began to regress to conventional nodes. Distributors grew wary of experiment, filmmakers grew weary of probing or inquiring into the ways of their art.

  • 27 James Monaco makes these analogies in ”Mother’s’ Day Will Be a Little Late This Year,” The New Yor (...)

129One curious film from France manifested this decline, simultaneously reflecting and commenting upon it, and announced, in 1973, the end of political film the way Weekend announced the end of conventional narrative cinema in 1967. Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore is hardly conventional, at least not in length. At 215 minutes, it competes with the films of Rivette for the patience of its audience. This great length is filled with talk, offering a superficial analogy with the films of Rohmer. Most of the talk and some of the action concern sex and sexuality, offering an analogy with Last Tango.27 But neither of these analogies holds on close examination, and The Mother and the Whore reveals itself finally as a film that goes against the work of Rohmer and Bertolucci (at least their work up to that time), closes the door on the multi-layered inquiries of Godard, and in short states that the New Wave is over. The film moves away from openness and toward introspection, from an interaction of characters with their environment and culture to an introverted concern with a limited set of personal feelings and reactions. One of the women in the film, the ”mother,” who lives with the central male character, Alexandre, despite his love affairs and his maltreatment of her, tells him of some graffiti she has read in a café toilet: ”My passion opens out on death like a window on a courtyard. To which, she says, someone has added, ”Jump, Narcissus!”

130Narcissus in this case is Alexandre, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose very presence in the film hooks it into some thirteen years of influential French cinema. The Léaud persona grew up in the films of François Truffaut, from a shy, inquisitive child in The 400 Blows to the inquisitive naïf in Stolen Kisses and Domicile conjugal. His self-effacing earnestness and ironic selfconsciousness also made him an excellent character for Godard—as the would-be lover impinged upon by the world’s chaos in Masculin-féminin, as Saint Juste preaching revolution and a young man singing love songs in a phone booth in Weekend, as one of the leaders of the Maoist cell in La chinoise, and as the earnest inquisitor of cultural images in Le gai savoir. In The Mother and the Whore the self-effacement and irony are gone. The selfconsciousness remains, but the earnestness has turned to obsessiveness. Alexandre is a parody of the mythological French bohemian, the passionate observer of the world from a seat in an outdoor café, in flowing scarf and dark glasses, with no job and many acquaintances, a number of lovers, and a greater number of opinions. But the parody is a dark one. This bohemian observes not the world but himself; though witty, he is without humor; though full of passion (at least verbal passion), devoid of compassion. He is brutal—he tells a new lover of how he beat up an old one, a story which, even if untrue, makes evident his hatred of women—and he uses his lovers essentially as mirrors in which to observe himself.

131The two women who most concern Alexandre are Marie, the ”mother,” who houses and cares for him, and Veronika, the ”whore,” a promiscuous nurse who both glories in and loathes her sexuality. She becomes Alexandre’s lover and engages in a masochistic ménage à trois. The film observes the three of them in nondescript black-and-white tonalities, using a compositional and cutting style that interferes as little as possible with the monologues and dialogues the three carry on, stubbornly refusing to comment upon them. Eustache seems to reach toward a psychological neorealism, notably devoid of melodramatic effects and insistent in maintaining its illusion of casual observation. But it can only reveal emptiness, an emotional and intellectual vacuum. There is no revelation of spiritual torment as in Bergman, no longing for discovery or contentment with searching as in the films of Wim Wenders, and certainly not the emotional engagement of Truffaut or the intellectual rigor of Godard. And unlike Rohmer’s characters, Eustache’s merely talk; their words enlighten neither them nor us, there is no sense of the delights of conversation or the ways language proves or disproves the moral structures individuals create for themselves. Unlike that of Last Tango, the sexuality does not become a metaphor for social and political relationships. Even the way the inhabitants of the film use it to manipulate one another reveals nothing. The characters are so lacking in self-respect, and the filmmaker so lacks an attitude toward them, that their mutual abuse merely collapses in upon them.

  • 28 Ibid.

132Perhaps it is breaking a butterfly on a wheel to go after this film with such vehemence, but I do so because it so clearly marks a change in the direction of European narrative film. Beneath the façade of its nonbourgeois characters, beneath the challenge of its length and its casual structure, it reveals a very safe and somewhat reactionary perspective: the old perspective of conventional cinema, inward upon characters concerned only with themselves. Eustache’s trio sit, drink Scotch, listen to records, fornicate or talk about fornication, recall 1968 as a bad dream, and ruminate obsessively on their emotional state. In 1973, James Monaco wrote that The Mother and the Whore ”is one of the first films to display the sensibilities of the seventies.”28 And he was as prophetic as the film. Eustache’s characters close themselves in, forget the world, and look to the self as refuge, promoting its importance, forgetting that as important as it is, it can only be understood in relationship to the complexities of external political events that manipulate individuals, perhaps allowing some to exist in a carefree state of introspection while others are not permitted this leisure.

133In 1969, Jean-Pierre Léaud had appeared in Pasolini’s remarkable film Pigsty (Il porcile) as the catatonic, pig-loving son of an old Nazi, who looks like Hitler and cheerfully admits to being a caricature born of Brecht and George Grosz. Pasolini juxtaposes this neo-fascist industrialist and his friends with a strange cannibal figure (Pierre Clementi), who forms a tribe and wanders the volcanic hills of some medieval world until caught and murdered by ”civilized” people. But Pasolini is not making a simple analogy in which fascists equal cannibals. Rather the son and the cannibals form a shifting perspective through which the father and his activities may be seen. The son is the repressed and emotionally ruined offspring of this family of political pigs. He seeks refuge with actual pigs who—like his family, but more literally—devour him. The cannibals are savage like the family, but in a state of nature; violent, but not yet repressed as the son is. They are primal man, and when captured, their chief can only repeat, ”I killed my father; I ate human flesh; I trembled with joy.” The son is already and perpetually captured and devitalized, victimized, and, like the cannibals, destroyed. His father and his father’s cohorts talk delightedly about their past, their slaughter of the ”Jewish-Bolshevik-Commissars,” and about a future from which humanism and conscience will be expunged. As the cannibals roam the barren hills and are caught the son slips into and out of catatonia, unable to rebel, unable to find alternatives in subjectivity, finally eaten by the pigs he loved. At the end of The Mother and the Whore, after an evening of drunken confession and self-abasement by the three characters, Alexandre takes his lover home to her miserable nurse’s quarters while Marie stays in their flat listening in silence to an Edith Piaf record. Alexandre, in the face of Veronika’s hysteria and her fears of being pregnant with his child, screams his love and asks to marry her. She says yes and throws up. The last shot of the film shows us Alexandre sitting on the floor of Veronika’s room, tapping his fingers, grimacing, and finally looking just blank. Where the Léaud character in Pasolini’s film is destroyed by the conflicts of history and personality, in Eustache’s film he is unrooted and without direction, trapped by the vagaries of subjectivity, a careless regard for himself and others, without reason for his condition beyond an almost terminal selfabsorption.

134The two films are obvious opposites: Pasolini’s a Brechtian fantasy of psycho-political destruction; Eustache’s a ”realistic” observation of contemporary Parisian bohemians. In the opposition of their subjects and approaches we find a summary of the elements and problems inherent in both forms. We expect the realist mode to allow the characters to play out their personalities, perhaps defined by their setting, class situation, and emotional makeup. We expect the Brechtian mode to remove us from direct contact with personality and instead create political tableaux in which temperaments and ideologies are played out through characters whose conflicts are determined by and whose emotions are filtered through the filmmaker’s analysis of the subject. Eustache chooses, within his realist approach, to create characters who have forgotten they exist in the world and have chosen to retreat into their sexual insecurities. He avoids melodrama, ordinarily associated with the realist mode, and at the same time narrows the range of his inquiry. Like the New Wave filmmakers, he focuses loosely on a specific set of characters and experience and allows a prolonged and open observation of them; but he does not try to reveal a social and economic environment. He rather seals his characters into a hermetic world in which they talk their lives out without achieving a coherent discourse. Pasolini achieves coherence by, paradoxically, seeming to avoid it. The relationship of the modern political caricatures and the ancient cannibals is only suggested by the intercutting of the images (at one point the cannibal looks up and there is a cut on his gaze to the home of the fascist industrialist, as if the man in the past were seeing the present; a minor character appears in both past and present narratives). As part of the Brechtian process, the spectator must draw the links, help the film construct its historical analysis and create narrative sense. In The Mother and the Whore, the images process themselves. Their chronology is secure, their spatial coordinates familiar, and the characters speak their feelings. Eustache does not probe those feelings or seek motivation for them, but also does not seek a context for them. We are given no material to work with beyond the characters’ words and faces, no ideas beyond those stated by them.

135Between the extremes of a realism in which we are asked to believe we are watching the bared souls of ciphers and a formalism in which we are forced to knit a continuity of meaning out of images adamant in giving us pleasure only through labor lies a range of cinematic expression. There are films which combine an analysis of history, politics, and class with characters created in rich detail, inhabiting a world that is both recognizable and significantly structured to reveal and comment upon aspects of contemporary life. Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976—co-written by John Berger and co-produced by Swiss television) demonstrates a particular response to Eustache’s political amnesia. He examines the lives of various characters who preserve an intellectual strength and a knowledge of themselves and the changes in Europe since May ‘68, who seek survival without sealing themselves off from the world and keep asking questions. With a sensibility as warm as Jean Renoir’s, Tanner embraces a number of characters—laborer, teacher, farmer, immigrant worker, banker, journalist, old resistance fighter, transcendental meditator—and gently, persistently shows that political conscience is not dead and that the ability of film to speak to an audience about ideas held with passion did not die when Godard turned away from narrative in the early seventies. Jonah has few Brechtian elements and is not as spare or schematic in its examination of the post-’68 consciousness as Godard and Gorin’s Tout va bien. Unlike that film it is not concerned with how narratives of love and work are made, though it shares with it a love of narrative-making, of storytelling, and even more a love of observing people attempting to find their way in ideas and emotions.

136The new German cinema has indicated the range of formal and contextual approaches possible without giving up responsibility. Volker Schlöndorff works comfortably in a conventional realist mode, yet manages to keep his fictions in touch with history and politics. Wim Wenders develops subjective analyses of the consciousness of his characters, yet at all times attempts to detail, if not explain, how that consciousness is touched by the larger culture, formed and deformed by the material world that surrounds it. Werner Herzog turns the material world into a dreamscape through which half-crazed characters wander in narratives that subjugate time and history to the interior spaces of irrational longings and barely defined battles between desire and reason. But even though subjugated, time and history do exist. R. W. Fassbinder, after Godard the major heir of Brecht, fractures desire and diminishes the subject by placing him or her in a landscape of oppression. He calculates his images and narrative structure so that the viewer, kept alert to information about the subject and sensitive rather than only reactive to the emotions experienced by the subject, is forced continually to question the subject’s actions, decisions, and motives. In no instance do these filmmakers take anything for granted—not the forms they use, the characters they create, or the response they expect from the spectator. They will mix melodrama with distancing devices; continuity with leaps in internal and external space and time; a realistic mise-en-scène with expressionist interiors and landscapes.

137The political economy of German filmmaking has so far permitted them to search out a variety of methods and subjects that, in the seventies, were largely abandoned by the filmmakers of other Western European countries for lack of financing and because the pressure to inquire was lost. The abandonment should be temporary only, for serious cinema, like the novel, has never stayed long in a creative slump. American film may be a lost cause for the present; some Latin American cinema may remain suppressed until the brutality of military regimes is ended. But the continual intellectual ferment of Europe and the desire and ability of governments to provide money so that ferment can be realized in images bode well. The struggles and successes of East European cinema; the independent filmmaking in England—rarely seen in America, but still in existence despite being ignored; state television’s support of Italian filmmakers; and the phenomenon of German film in the late seventies are all optimistic signs.

138Although serious European film is getting more and more difficult to see in America, some films are getting made. And because this is a celebration rather than an elegy, I want to end by discussing two figures who have endured many cycles of creative, economic, and political changes in the course of their careers and have managed to keep on making films that get distributed and seen, and that sum up many of the problems we have looked at in course of this study. I have already talked of Luis Buñuel; the other filmmaker, Joseph Losey, has managed to evade discussion, perhaps because a career that began in Hollywood, moved to England, and spanned forms as diverse as science fiction and the cinematic rendering of Mozart opera defies the categories criticism needs to give its subjects order.

139Joseph Losey is an American, and therefore really does not belong in this study at all. However, he left the United States in the early fifties because of the blacklist and became so thoroughly involved in European production and attuned to European sensibility, so at ease at filmmaking in England and France, that he is a European director for all intents and purposes. Losey is also a Brechtian, perhaps the most traditional Brechtian of all contemporary filmmakers. He knew Brecht and directed the first Englishlanguage stage performance of Galileo with Charles Laughton (although when he finally filmed it in 1974, for the American Film Theater enterprise, he could not transcend its theatrical limits). He does not engage in the radical distancing devices and the foregrounding of ideological analysis found in the work of Godard, Straub, Pasolini, or Fassbinder. Instead, in his most successful work, he achieves an analytical distance in a different way. He absorbs character into class (giving the representatives of a class very specific character) and makes his narrative function within carefully defined spatial coordinates. The way he deals with space, the way he makes architecture function as a defining structure, detailing the interior of a house with as great care as the characters who inhabit it, places him in the tradition of Bresson and Antonioni in the West, and also of Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu makes his habitations comfortable; they secure his characters. The rooms of Bresson are an expression of his characters’ desolation, sparely furnished for the most part, often mean and constricting. Antonioni turns rooms, buildings, and landscapes into oppressive forms that defy human habitation and deny human comfort.

140Losey uses a different strategy; he makes a house and its rooms a place in which to build a point of view that determines the situation of a particular character and the way that character is to be interpreted. In those films written by Harold Pinter—The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), The Go- Between (1971)—the treatment of interiors is made a visual equivalent of Pinter’s language. The observation of place provides pauses in the action, sometimes indicating threat, often cutting off one character from another, always providing commentary and perspective. The Servant, for example, is on one level an abstract allegory of class hatred and revenge, in which the master, Tony (James Fox), and servant, Barratt (Dirk Bogarde), play increasingly vicious games of role alternation to the mutual destruction of their personalities. The inquiry into the fragility of character, the fragility of any structure that depends upon dominance and submission, is rendered concrete by enclosing it within Tony’s house. Not only does the house become the center of most of the action, but the changes it undergoes and the places within it from which these changes are seen provide our own visual field in which to judge what is happening, rendering it more concrete than do the events themselves. There are specific places of importance: the ground floor dining room and lounge are where, at the beginning, Tony and Barratt act out the conventional roles of servant and master. The upstairs rooms are at first discreetly separated into the master’s bathroom and bedroom and the servant’s quarters; as they are taken over by Barratt and his lover, Vera, these spaces become threatening, palpable expressions of the vulnerability of power and privilege. The downstairs kitchen, the conventional place for the servants, becomes an ominous area with a loudly dripping faucet: the place where Vera seduces Tony. The stairs that connect the levels become the major point of transition and the place of the film’s climax, marking ominously the transitions of the narrative. Tony and Barratt’s role reversal is played out on the staircase; they play ball with each other, shifting personalities, altering their psychological makeup as we watch.

141The exchange of personalities is a favorite literary and cinematic gambit. In Bergman’s Persona, the struggle between Elisabeth Vogler, the actress who decides to cease speaking, and Alma, her nurse, confidante, double, and victim, occurs in a barely defined landscape—a hospital room, a house on the beach, the surface of the film itself, to which Bergman calls attention in order to remind us how easily images are manipulated and the surfaces of personality shifted. In Bergman’s treatment, the causes of the encroachment of one persona upon another arise from some dark recesses of the psyche and from the metaphysical pressures of the need for communication. His characters seek assurance that they are emotionally alive in a deadening world, a need so powerful that it results in one character attempting to suck another dry. But whereas Bergman dislocates both us and his characters, Losey attempts to locate both in a more defined context. By making the house the locus of activity, by giving it a presence and allowing it to fashion our perspective on the fragile psychological imbalances that ownership (in all its manifestations) creates, Losey roots his analysis in the material world.

Servant and master (Dirk Bogarde, James Fox). The Servant (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

142This allows him great flexibility. The Servant is both a critique of the British class system and an investigation of sexual manipulation and psychological cruelty that could exist independently of that system but are defined and clarified by it. The two couples, Tony, his lover Susan, Barratt, and Vera, stalk each other, reflect and deflect each other (quite literally, as a distorting mirror in the foyer of the house reflects their features), and use each other emotionally and physically. The degradation they cause is determined by their social attitudes, but is played out through the weakness of each, the readiness of each to use and be used, and the absolute ripeness for degeneration that Losey and Pinter observe in all of them, as well as in those who surround them. In a restaurant sequence a number of individuals appear, peripheral to the main narrative, but each playing out a role of domination or submission that echoes the events and attitudes occurring in the house. The result is a concurrence of microcosm and macrocosm—the house, the restaurant, the world—in which class and psychological cruelty demean and destroy individuals.

143The Go-Between takes a similar view, though here the social-psychological dialectic occurs not only within a house and its environs but in the environs of memory as well. In the early part of the century, Leo, a lower-middleclass child, is taken in for the summer by an aristocratic Norfolk family. One member of that family, Marian (Julie Christie), uses him as a messagebearer to her lover, a tenant farmer, Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). The activity brings ruin to both men: Burgess commits suicide after he is discovered in bed with Marian by her mother; Leo is emotionally ruined by seeing their sexual activity. This plot appears thoroughly melodramatic, full of potential for emotional excess, sexual exploitation, and moralizations about the abuse of children. Instead, Losey creates out of Pinter’s script (itself based on L. P. Hartley’s novel) a study in temporal times, cross. ”The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there” are the first words we hear in the film, spoken by Michael Redgrave, who plays Leo as an old man, whose perceptions partially determine the narrative structure. Though only partly. The film is not ”told” in flashback; if anything, it is told in flash-forward. The body of the film takes place in the warm summer of young Leo’s ruin, when he is admitted into the ritual-ridden world of the aristocracy and falls in love with Marian and Burgess (whose vitality is continually contrasted with the paralysis of the rich family). Used by both, he is finally damaged by the exploitation, rendered an emotionless, loveless man. At strategic intervals within this narrative there are shots—of varying duration and out of chronological order—of another time and place: a gray and rainy time as compared to the sunny green of the main narrative. The shots gradually reveal themselves, through objects such as a car and a television set, to be of the ”present.”

144The quotation marks are important. The time scheme of The Go-Between is not as complex as that of a Resnais film—La guerre est finie, for example, which is interrupted by flash-forwards to possible events in the central character’s life, or Je t’aime, je t’aime, which is like a mirror of the past shattered into hundreds of bits, each shiver reflecting a small fragment of the central character’s memory. Rather than juggle the cinematic conventions of time past, present, and future, Losey creates a convergence of times and a point of view caught in that convergence. Again buildings serve as a focus for that point of view. Shots are composed and edited within the aristocrats’ house so as to create an effect of seeing things twice: we see things out a window just after or just before Leo actually looks at them, as if someone else were recalling events slightly out of sync. Young Leo visits the cathedral in Norwich. Inside there is a sudden and unexplained leap to an extreme high angle of him from the ceiling.

145Throughout the film there are distant shots of deer on the lawn of the estate that act as punctuation marks, suspending the action, reminding us that a particular act of observation is occurring, that there is a consciousness separated from the individuals in the immediate drama before us, which may be recalling or reflecting upon events and memories. The events in the film are seen from our point of view, from the perspective of an omniscient author, and from the consciousness of Leo as a child and Leo as an old man.

146The result of this confluence is an effect of time suspended and an unlocalized reverie of regret, longing, and fear as the various temporal planes are played out one against the other, culminating in a shock when time present takes over and the old Leo, puffy and emotionally deadened, is approached by an old Marian and asked once more to be a go-between—this time between herself and her grandson. As in The Servant, class and power are used as a weapon, and everyone’s emotional well-being is damaged by it. By indicating the temporal spread of the damage, its movement across time, Losey is able to deepen the notion of its virulence. But at the same time, The Go-Between hides its social perspectives. Less abstract than The Servant, even with its careful and complex temporal pattern; visually more engaging, more ”pretty” in a conventional photographic sense; and using well-known stars and a sexually oriented story, it was a commercially viable film and a measure of Losey’s ability to weave perception of history and class into an attractive narrative form and substance not threatening to an audience, but not obsequious to it either. He can deal with the emotional entanglements we expect from movies and at the same time construct a point of view that permits the spectator to take an analytic stance, if he or she is willing.

147Losey has struck a careful, even enviable, balance between the modernist/Brechtian urge for a politically engaged cinema that disrupts the ordinary pattern of spectator involvement and the ”commercially viable product” that offers a sexy story and recognizable faces. He is engaging and subtle, deeply aware of the relationship between emotional, sexual, and social experience, suspicious of class motives and satisfactions but willing to entertain them while investigating them. ”The bourgeois life has its compensations, doesn’t it?” asks Michael Caine’s well-to-do novelist in The Romantic Englishwoman (1975). ”What would it be without them?” responds the German drug runner-cum-poet who is about to steal the author’s wife. The Romantic Englishwoman is a kind of ironic elegy for the middle class, a mid-seventies summation of the pressures of domesticity, the growing discomfort of women in their hitherto predetermined roles of mother and supporter, the insecurity of men in response to that discomfort, and the general fantasizing of an adventurous life that might transcend discomfort, insecurity, boredom, and fear. It is an elegant film that at the same time parodies elegance and the elegant fantasies of bourgeois film. Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson), the novelist’s wife, runs off with the German adventurer, attempts to live out a fantasy of escape, danger, and romance, and inadvertently lives out her husband’s fantasy ”plot” for his own cuckolding. But if the film parodies, it also reassures; husband and wife reestablish their domestic unit. The novelist interferes in the ”plot,” runs after his wife, puts himself in danger with the drug runners, and brings her home with the most gentle of words: ”I don’t want you to come to harm.”

148What would bourgeois life be without its compensations? Losey and his screenwriters, Tom Stoppard and Thomas Wiseman, confront a question basic to all middle-class, left-wing intellectuals, that of finding alternatives to the life they themselves lead and at the same time find abhorrent, particularly when placed in a wider cultural-political context. The elements of middleclass life—order, security, predictability; the freedom, within defined limits, to act and think independently; the cultivation of individuality; ”honesty, scrupulousness, discrimination, protectiveness, tenderness, aversion to violence and the conscious practice of terror” (qualities catalogued by a character in Resnais’s Providence)—are so deeply inscribed as to be almost impossible to erase. They may be mocked and excoriated, they may be examined in a global context and seen to be limited and even dangerous when forced upon societies that have other needs and values. But when examined at home, within the domestic unit, they are almost impossible to reject—on moral if not political grounds. Sometimes they can only be examined by being stripped away, exposing a vulnerability of feelings and a desperate need for the security that bourgeois values were created to protect. The Romantic Englishwoman deals with the need for assurance, safety, and continuity in a somewhat frivolous way. Losey treats it more profoundly in Mr. Klein, a film made in France in 1976, written by Franco Solinas (one of the major political screenwriters of Europe).

149Mr. Klein is another entry in what might be considered a genre of European film: the inquiry into the fascist period of the thirties and early forties, an almost obsessive probing into a period which is historically close, yet so appallingly distant from what we imagine our political behavior should be that it must be examined over and over. Images of fascism are created and re-created in an attempt to understand and expunge them, but only rarely—as in some of Fassbinder’s films, Resnais’s 1955 documentary Night and Fog, and Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1971)—are they seen as historically continuous, still with us in disguised form. In Mr. Klein, Losey and Solinas choose a small facet of the phenomenon and elaborate from it a psychological fantasy. The moment is Paris during the Nazi occupation, and the subject is the problem of complicity, the way all people, but most especially those who imagined they were outside political events, were deeply involved in the round-up and massacre of the Jews. The narrative structure of Mr. Klein develops the idea of the doppelgänger—the other self. Robert Klein (Alain Delon) is a wealthy art dealer in 1942. The Paris police are rounding up Jews. Klein’s discovery of a Jewish newspaper left at his door, addressed to him, leads him to discover the existence of a Jew with his name whom he feels compelled to find, partly to clear himself of a dangerous association and partly—increasingly, as the film progresses—to discover what it means to exist as a person in danger. The body of the film follows Klein as he follows various clues, visiting people who know the ”other” Klein, examining the wretched flat where the other Klein lived, chasing after rich acquaintances and poor ones in a diminishing circle that leads, finally, to his own deportation.

150Losey and Solinas use the theme of the double as a device upon which to build a larger structure of inquiry. Mr. Klein is a figure who has every reason to believe that he can remove himself from the realities and demands of history. A rich bourgeois, encased in the elegance of a respected trade, he considers himself something of a disinterested helper of the persecuted. The first time we see him, he is buying the art works of a Jew who needs money. He does it coldly and with arrogance, describing the painting in the impersonal tones of the doctor who, in the very first sequence of the film, is seen examining and cataloguing the traits of a woman for the state’s records of racial origins. The woman, who is naked, is treated like a thing to be dealt with, classified, and sent away. The cut from the doctor’s office to Klein’s rich and secure surroundings, with pictures of human figures on the wall and his mistress lounging in bed, immediately indicates a connection between Klein’s private world and the horrors that are occurring outside it. He too turns the human body into an object, something to be observed and used. And once again the house becomes a primary sign for Losey, an objective indication of Klein’s tenuous security which breaks down as he becomes more obsessed with discovery. For much of the film its elegance stands as a separation from and contrast to the streets where police activity quickens, where barriers and detention centers are set up. But when the police begin to accept Klein as his double, refusing to see a separation, they invade the house and strip it. The other Klein invades it too, by means of his dog, which appears and is adopted by Mr. Klein. When the police search the house, a friend of Mr. Klein’s discovers a piece of music on his piano which Klein says was written by his double. He tells the friend to play it. It is the ”Internationale.”

  • 29 Despair (from a Nabokov novel and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard) is not one of Fassbinder’s most su (...)
  • 30 The film is related to the psychological theories of Jacques Lacan, examined in more detail by Pet (...)

151Invaded both by the police and by his double (who, it becomes more and more apparent, is a left-wing member of the Resistance), Klein is forced into history—partly by default and by accident, partly by his own active participation in seeking out the mysterious other Mr. Klein. But here we are not dealing with a psychological convention of confused identities; this is not the microcosm of The Servant, nor the displacement of self that occurs in Fassbinder’s Despair (1977). (That film, set in Germany in the thirties, involves an intricate perceptual dislocation in which an individual adopts and kills a double who looks nothing like him as part of a psychotic escape from a psychotic society).29 Rather, Losey is depicting a kind of forced march into the world, led by an unseen figure who becomes more of a conscience than a character. The ”other” Mr. Klein is that other which is and is not the self (significantly, on a number of occasions when Mr. Klein hears about his double, his first reaction is to glance at himself in a mirror), and which the self must attempt to appropriate.30 Klein becomes hunter and hunted, his elegance and security finally peeled away until he unconsciously chooses to be the other. That ghostly figure no longer has a separate identity. As the police sweep the city, rounding up its Jewish population (including the ”other,” who is turned in by Mr. Klein’s friend), Mr. Klein is loaded into a bus with the other deportees. At the stadium where the Jews are being collected, Klein’s name is called out. A faceless figure in the crowd raises his hand, and we assume that here we may actually see the elusive other Klein. But Mr. Klein, despite the fact that a friend has arrived with a clearance for him, runs after his fugitive self, whose face is never revealed, and is swept up by the crowd and placed in a cattle car. Behind him is the Jew from whom, at the beginning of the film, he purchased a painting.

152Klein does not merely ”become” his other; he becomes part of the enormous group collectively turned by the Nazis into a cultural ”other,” a group determined by the fascist ideology to be its enemy and threat, its dark side that must be destroyed. The irony is that fascism is itself the dark side of bourgeois complacency and self-centeredness. The ”Jewish Question” was the Nazis’ invention of a dialectic where there was none, and an attempt to erase their own relationship to a history they pretended to control. The paranoid view of history, which is a major component of fascism, demands the creation of enemies, the turning of people into things. This is, of course, what Mr. Klein has done, to a lesser extent, in his private life. Now that he is forced to confront history, to see and be his other self, his ability ”to be objective” is gone. The world’s terrors become his own, seen by Losey in extraordinary images of commonplace violence. In the film’s final sequences, Losey observes with a removed horror the city in which the Jews are rounded up, noting in the faces of those caught and awaiting deportation a combination of hysteria and stillness, a frantic action and a dumbfounded passivity, an expression of disbelief so thorough as to be paralyzing. The most active figure in this grouping is Mr. Klein, who embraces his destruction with the anticipation of someone making a discovery he cannot resist.

153The movement to irresistible discovery is a major quality of Losey’s films. He does not care for epiphanies, for sudden revelations, but for steady processes of understanding and seeing through; he places characters in environments in which they either lose or discover something, often both simultaneously—Mr. Klein loses his life when he discovers that he is, like everyone else, a part of history. Losey allows us as spectators safely to observe the effects of class barriers or political amnesia and perceive what occurs when the safety they offer is removed. That is what all of his best films are concerned with. When he came to film Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1979), he interpreted it as a legend that can only exist in a culture where economic privilege permits one individual leisure and power to abuse others. He opens the film with an epigraph taken from the writings of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist theoretician: ”... The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.” His fluid, architectural version of the opera becomes, under the aegis of this quotation, a prelude to revolution, a notation in legend of the morbid obsessions of dying classes.

154The quotation could well be the epigraph for the whole canon of contemporary Western European political cinema. Unable or unwilling to see the new born, horrified and delighted at the dying of the old, some filmmakers fight history or explain it, some succumb to it, many try to show we are not impotent in the world. Others simply observe its morbid symptoms. No filmmaker does this with greater joy than Luis Buñuel. I have already examined two phases of Buñuel’s work: his mid-career adoption of neorealism—certainly one of the more bizarre relationships in the history of cinema—and his later rejuvenation by the New Wave, certainly one of the more heartwarming examples of an old master learning from the young who, in their turn, had learned much from him (although the term ”heartwarming” would ordinarily be one of the last to come to mind in considering Buñuel).

155I want to look at his work yet again as a point of summary and examine what happens when an anarchic-surrealist-socialist-misanthrope active since the late twenties moves into the late seventies and attempts to deal with its problems. Buñuel’s voice, in his early and middle films, is that of an angry and bemused, more than slightly perverse fantasist who despises bourgeois arrogance and self-centeredness with such a passion that he would like to take the entire class by its collective neck, wring it until its eyes split, and make it see its own oppressive absurdities and presumptions. In the seventies bemusement seems to win out over anger, and in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty he seems more content to laugh than to rail. He looks at the upper middle class as performers on a stage, dreaming one another’s acts and acting each other’s dreams. The Discreet Charm is a dream film with no levels of reality except for the reality of its own perceptions of the class it excoriates. A group of people attempt to have a dinner party, keep attempting to have it for the length of the film, but are unable ever to eat because all their dreams of love and terrorism, of military maneuvers, of a bishop who shoots a dying old man who has murdered his parents, and a South American diplomat who deals in drugs, keep interfering. At one point in their long march to nowhere, the group comes to the home of an army colonel for dinner. Their host is not present, but servants bring them two rubber chickens to eat, which are dropped and tossed around. Suddenly loud tapping noises are heard. Lights go on. The red curtains on the dining room wall part and a theater audience is revealed looking at the guests. They attempt to leave, but a prompter stops them and attempts to direct them into a performance of (perhaps) Don Giovanni: ”To prove your courage, you invited the Commander’s ghost to dinner....” This does not work; general chaos ensues; the audience grows restive; one of the guests admits he does not know the text he is meant to play—then wakes up and goes to the Colonel’s dinner, only to become an actor in someone else’s dream.

156The film is a wonderful parody of the Hollywood convention of resolving difficult situations by revealing them to be only dreams. But Buñuel goes many steps further. All of the actions in the film are dreams and dreams of dreams. Buñuel used to employ dream images to express, at crucial parts in a narrative, an explosion of the unconscious, the outward manifestation of his characters’ fears and repressions. They were not always presented as dreams. Buñuel’s images, indeed entire films, are eruptions of repressed material pouring out of the seams of cultural rituals. For example, the nun’s progress from virgin to poker player, with an interlude of a beggar’s banquet that takes the form of the Last Supper, makes Viridiana (1961) not so much an attack upon Catholicism as Catholicism’s confession of its own nightmares of defeat. Buñuel found in religion a structure of repression so obvious that he merely had to invert a few of its terms to reveal piety as self-hatred, sacrifice as masochism, self righteousness as a terrifying vulnerability. The good priest in Nazarin (1958) travels about in poverty to improve the lot of the world and leaves chaos and death in his wake. Finally led off to prison, he stops by a fruit stall where a woman wants to make him an offering. He is dumbfounded at this expression of kindness, the first he has received in some time. The viewer is confounded at the offering made and accepted—a pineapple, hard and sharp, a symbolic crown of thorns for this would-be Christ marching across country to prison.

157Buñuel’s film-dreams perpetually surprise, offend, confound, and outrage. They invert the codes that govern waking life in order to reveal some deeply implanted desires for revenge and destruction and dismantle the hypocritical gestures that are themselves destructive. No one comes off unhurt. Priests and nuns, saints, dwarves, blind men, legless cripples, insects, dogs, chickens, people in gowns or top hats, workers, soldiers, orchestra leaders, diplomats, terrorists become victims of their liberated repressions. The only figures that come out less damaged than others are old lechers. Although Viridiana’s uncle (who makes her dress in his late wife’s wedding gown) hangs himself, and although Tristana hastens the death of her ward and seducer, Don Lope, these old foot fetishists and destroyers of virginity—invariably played by Fernando Rey—are the only characters Buñuel permits to keep even a modicum of self-respect and dignity. They act upon instinct without first filtering their acts through layers of hopeless fears and restraints. The sexism here is rampant, though slightly offset by the fact that everyone in Buñuel’s realm is inhibited and hurt by inhibitions, men as well as women. His women, however, can be seen to suffer doubly: from the social and religious structures that oppress both sexes and from the men who are the administrators of the oppressive structures.

  • 31 See Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality, pp. 191-202.
  • 32 Tristana, trans. Nicholas Fry (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971), pp. 48, 76.

158The heroine of Tristana (1970; one of Buñuel’s most ”realistic” narratives, only slightly dependent on the intrusion of the fantastic) achieves a rare victory over her seducer. She kills him. But the cause of her revenge is the complete repression of desire, so great that it is manifested as a kind of castration. Tristana has a diseased leg which must be amputated. The inability to deal with desire becomes self-destructive. As Joan Mellen indicates, she becomes a kind of figure for Spain itself—the country of Buñuel’s birth, with which he has had a hateful relationship all his life and in most of his films—a land impassioned and imprisoned, so fearful of expression that its history is pockmarked by religious and political repressions barely distinguishable from each other.31 The film is set in the early thirties, a period of political upheaval. Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) is an orphan, given over to her old guardian Don Lope (Fernando Rey), who, without much resistance on her part, seduces her. Their relationship is confused and repressive. ”If you want an honest woman,” Don Lope says (with some prophetic irony), ”break her leg and keep her at home.” He tells her ”I am your father and your husband, and I can be one or the other as and when it suits me.”32 Tristana takes a lover, an artist, who knocks old Don Lope down and takes Tristana away, only to bring her back when she refuses marriage and gets sick. Her own leg amputated, she sits at the piano with her prosthetic leg lying on the bed (images that climax the foot fetishism that works its way into all of Buñuel’s films) and plans her vengeance on passion in general. Her vision of Don Lope is a dream of his head as the clapper in an enormous bell, and what remains of her sexuality is expressed by her exposing herself to a young mute worker, who flees into the woods to masturbate, a sequence followed by a cut to a church, where Tristana and Don Lope are married.

159It is a marriage made for further revenge. Tristana will not sleep with her husband and ends by refusing to call a doctor as he lies dying. The destructive woman (that most ancient of film figures) is here given a context for her evil, and an explanation. The repression of emotion, like the repression of class conflict (here, as so often in Buñuel’s work, the rumblings of revolution intrude upon the characters and act as foil to their perversities), leads to eruptions: the unrest of the denied classes; the perverse expression of denied desires in the ruling classes. The woman in Buñuel’s work is both social and sexual victim; she internalizes her victimization and then externalizes it by victimizing the poor old Buñuelian man—who, in the old Latin tradition, wants very little more than to get laid. The result of the inhibitions, victimizations, desires, and their collapse is a perversity of event, a dreamlike discontinuity in what are conventionally considered as logical and humane activities (desire, love), and a transformation of the screen into a space of fantasy, debilitation, and absurdity, with a point of view—always tightly controlled by Buñuel—of humorous disengagement and downright joy at the earned misery and meanness of the characters he creates.

160In That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), his most recent film (and, given his age, quite likely his last), Buñuel attempted a summation of his attitudes in what is, for him, something approaching an understanding of the woman’s situation. Like Tristana, That Obscure Object is constructed in a fairly conventional way. Although the body of the narrative is in flashback—as Mathieu (Fernando Rey, again) tells his traveling companions on a train from Seville to Paris about his unhappy love for Conchita—the events told move (with one major exception) with an almost old-fashioned continuity. The fantastic eruptions of the unconscious that we are used to in Buñuel’s work appear offhandedly, almost unobtrusively. There are some familiar Buñuelian characters, such as a dwarf, in this instance a psychiatrist, who is one of the people on the train. When the little man first enters the compartment, a little girl unhesitatingly attempts to lift him onto the seat. Some Buñuelian mysteries occur. A group of old women meet Mathieu on the street, finger his palm, and show off a pig wrapped in a blanket. There is an old man who wanders after Mathieu carrying a brown sack (carried occasionally by Mathieu himself) whose contents are not revealed until the very end. Offhanded jokes and absurdities abound. All the people in the train compartment turn out to know one another or each other’s relatives. Scattered throughout the film are references to the catching of flies and mice. In a restaurant where Mathieu bemoans his difficulties with Conchita, he discovers a dead fly in his drink. The waiter tells him he’s been chasing that one for days. ”One fly less,” remarks Mathieu. And when Conchita’s mother asks him if he plans to marry her daughter, a mousetrap is sprung.

161In the Buñuelian world flies and mice are caught as man and woman are caught in each other’s traps. Entrapment is Buñuel’s theme, whether it is Viridiana, the priest Nazarin, or the would-be saint of Simon of the Desert entrapped in the illusions of religion, the dinner guests of The Exterminating Angel so trapped in bourgeois rituals they cannot escape the dinner party they attend, or the corrupt hypocrites of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie who are trapped into trying to have a dinner party they can never bring off. The traps in That Obscure Object are the usual ones: sex and politics. Mathieu, like all of the characters Fernando Rey plays for Buñuel, is looking for a mistress. Around him, political factions are looking for a way to deal with the European bourgeoisie. The manifestation of both quests is terrorism.

162European filmmakers have had no more success than any one else in dealing with the concept and reality of terrorism. The fear and anger it arouses, combined with the all but inexpressible understanding that some terrorist acts originate from deeply felt frustration and need for change in rigid political structures, works to prevent rational comprehension and either a passioned or dispassioned analysis of it. When terrorism is confronted in film it is usually shown as the work either of misguided and uncohesive groups, as in Chabrol’s Nada (1974), or of middle-class fools, as in Fassbinder’s The Third Generation. (Chabrol, however, depicts the organization of the state against the terrorists as more brutal and foolish than anything the terrorists themselves can manage; while Fassbinder sees terrorism as an unwitting aid to repression by the state.) Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege and Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers have made engaged attempts at analyzing the politics of left-wing terrorism, and Manuel Guttiérrez Aragon, one of the filmmakers working to revive a Spanish national cinema, has attempted to examine neo-fascist terrorism in Black Brood (1977). In Buñuel’s case political analysis is, as always, joined to, even submerged in, psycho-sexual analysis. The terrorist activity that occurs in That Obscure Object, under the leadership of a group that only Buñuel’s perverse intelligence could have invented—the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus—is reflected into and out of the terrorism committed upon one another by Mathieu and his Conchita, or rather Conchitas. Despite the apparent ”realistic” continuity and the straightforward narration of events, something occurs in this film that denies every bit of reality, as well as the security of our point of view, our location in the narrative organization as spectators. Conchita is played by two different actresses. One, Carole Bouquet, is slim and adolescent. The other, Angela Molina, has a more conventionally sensual ”Latin” appearance. The maddening aspect of this is that, like all the other surprises in the film, it is done with no attention called to the fact. They may appear in the same sequence, one coming into a room the other has just left; they speak with the same voice; their actions and attitudes do not change very much from one actress to the other; and Mathieu takes absolutely no note of their different appearances. They are the same person for him, with two different physical manifestations for us.

163The immediate result is a subdued act of terrorism committed upon the viewer, a disruption in the way we are used to looking at characters on the screen, particularly women who are presented as objects of desire. The disruption in this instance goes beyond mere confusion over seeing two people acting one role; it attacks our expectations about the erotic object on the screen. In a seminal study of the phenomenon, Laura Mulvey writes:

  • 33 ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, 16 (Autumn, 1975), 11-12.

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.... Traditionally the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen.33

164There is no question that Conchita serves as the erotic object—the obscure object of desire—for Mathieu. But what about the spectator? Why are only we able to discern a difference? All women are the same to Mathieu; they are all merely objects of desire. Conchita knows this, for her purpose throughout the film is to tease, to promise him her sexuality and then deny it, proclaim her independence, demand that love and fornication are not the same thing, offer and withhold continually. She does to him precisely what his own misogyny demands. But as the object of viewer desire the two Conchitas frustrate and confuse the male gaze. If Mathieu is blind to women as individuals, the spectator may not be; if the male gaze has been perpetually satisfied by the screen’s image of the sexually desirable woman, it will be no longer. The object of desire in film was always unattainable, merely the reductive image of woman as thing. Now it is both unattainable and incomprehensible. In an older film version of the 1898 novel by Pierre Louÿs, The Woman and the Puppet, which is Buñuel’s source, Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman (1935), Marlene Dietrich is the conventional erotic object for both male viewer and male participants in the fiction. She is the center of all gazes, the glittering focus of desire. Buñuel fractures the security and the object of the gaze; he makes the spectator look twice at the same character and twice at Mathieu who looks and sees no difference. The effect of distancing he achieves is not as extreme as in a Godard or Fassbinder film, but perhaps more subtle and therefore more subversive. We are made uncomfortable by a difference that goes unacknowledged in the film and forced to view the proceedings as something other than one more tale of a man pursuing a reluctant and calculating woman. We are forced to pursue the ramifications of our own looking.

165For her part, Conchita is very much aware of the function of woman as the object of the look. As part of her design to undo Mathieu, who bought her from her mother (though too much should not be made of this, for Buñuel’s characters rarely act out of simple melodramatic motivations like revenge), Conchita makes Mathieu the spectator of her erotic performances. She wears an elaborate and nasty chastity belt to amaze and infuriate him. She sees to it that he watches her dance nude for tourists in a nightclub. She locks him out of the house he buys for her and makes him watch her make love with her guitar-playing boyfriend in the courtyard. After each performance, she denies his perception of her activities, insists that she is not owned by him, and is, anyway, still a virgin, an argument that always renews his interest. The point of view is shifted back and forth between Mathieu and Conchita. Her teasing is unconscionable, hilarious, deserved. When, out of his frustration and damaged machismo, he beats her, Buñuel runs the risk of creating a conventional response in which the woman is confirmed as worthy of masculine hatred and brutality. The bitch-goddess is an ancient figure of misogyny, created to reflect men’s fears and hatred of a woman who will not be a passive object, and the history of film is filled with her presence. Such a figure is (within the logic of misogyny) worthy of the wronged man’s revenge and may be physically hurt for the emotional hurt she causes. In this film, it is, happily, not so simple. Throughout their story, Mathieu and his Conchita(s) play their roles of lecherous old man and reluctant virgin knowingly, willingly, and with some delight (it is with great delight that Mathieu tells his story to his traveling companions, who listen eagerly). The sexual terrorism they enact upon each other is not as vicious as that committed by Elvira upon herself in In a Year of Thirteen Moons or by Paul and Jeanne upon each other in Last Tango in Paris. Mathieu and Conchita keep seeking each other out, chasing each other away, returning, meeting by accident and by design (accident and design are often interchangeable in Buñuel’s work). Around them their games are echoed by acts of the political terrorists, who create a general havoc paralleling the individual havoc created by the two (three) would-be/reluctant lovers.

Mathieu (Fernando Rey) and one incarnation of his Conchita (Carole Bouquet). That Obscure Object of Desire (Films Incorporated)

  • 34 Cf. David Overbey, ”Cet obscur objet du désir,” Sight and Sound, 47 (Winter, 1977/78), 8.
  • 35 Ibid.

166The despair of sexuality, so evident in the work Fassbinder, Bertolucci, and Godard, is replaced here by its absurdity. That people should engage in objectifying desire, buying and selling love, playing out spectacles of pursuit and conquest and denial and revenge seems worthy only of derision. Barter and exchange present serious enough problems in the economic world. When the emotional environment mimics middle-class notions of proprietorship and involves the exchange of favors and the turning of humans into objects, the resulting terrors can eventually only destroy.34 Which is precisely what happens to Buñuel’s two (three) terrorists of sexuality. When Mathieu finishes his story (his bourgeois traveling companions—judge, dwarf psychiatrist, proper lady—all agree that Conchita got the beating she deserved),35 she reappears in the compartment and repays him by dumping a pail of water on his head, as he did to her when the film began. They leave the train together, passing in the station the workman with the mysterious brown sack who has constantly been following Mathieu (earlier in the film someone has referred to women as ”sacks of excrement,” and we begin to associate this figure and his burden with this woman-hating remark).

167They proceed to a shopping arcade, where the sack appears in a store window. Mathieu and Conchita. walk by, arguing, pausing to look in the window where they see a lady pull not excrement, but various bloodied linens and laces out of the sack and mend them. Buñuel the old surrealist endures; Mathieu’s dirty linen is literally aired in public. As the lovers look and walk on a radio report is broadcast from a loudspeaker, one of the funniest pieces of news ever created:

Police report the formation of a strange alliance. Several extreme left groups, known to the public as the P.O.P., the P.R.I.Q.U.E., the G.R.I.F., and the R.U.T., have suddenly joined in a campaign of violence under the direction of the R.A.I.J., the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. These attacks, launched at random, are aimed at throwing our society into total confusion. Extreme right-wing terrorist groups, in particular the P.A.F. and the S.T.I.C., say they’ll meet the left’s challenge and are going into action, too, collaborating in this devastating act of subversion.... Msgr. Fiessole, Archbishop of Sienna, remains in a coma. One bullet that hit him in last week’s attack struck the carotid artery. His state is critical. His breathing is normal, thanks to medical science, but his brain is practically dead. Msgr. Fiessole’s living death could continue for months. The Roman Curia has protested the attack. The Communist Party itself has issued a vigorous denunciation of this odious act.... And now, to change the mood a little, here is some music.

168Strains of Richard Wagner are heard. Mathieu and Conchita walk away, arguing still. In a sudden blast of flame and smoke, they are blown up.

169The final act of terrorism is Buñuel’s. Of all the filmmakers who have offered responses and alternatives to the melodramas of sexuality and love’s difficulties, who have tried to help themselves and their audience to an understanding of the tyrannies of the romantic myth, only Buñuel, the old anarchist, has decided there is one thing to be done: blow it up.

  • 36 Quoted by Buache, Cinema of Buñuel, p. 7.

170Perhaps of all the filmmakers discussed in this book Buñuel is old enough and has the authority to indulge in such a simple, direct, even apocalyptic conclusion. ”The screen’s white eyelid would only need to be able to reflect the light that is its own, and it would blow up the universe,” he once said.36 And from the eyeball split open at the beginning of Un chien andalou to the exploding of the ridiculous lovers at the end of That Obscure Object of Desire he has tried to cleanse our perceptions and explode the repressive stupidities of convention and ritual. The other filmmakers, by comparison, work in more restrained ways; yet most have tried to discover through the cinema eye ways of clarifying history and relationships of people to history and to each other, to analyze and clear away obscurity and those parts of tradition that blind. Their success is measured in the ways they have made film reflect an inquiring and informed intelligence and a passion for seeking images that explain, and, perhaps, show a way to change.


* Costa-Gavras has attempted to maintain a political base to his filmmaking, particularly in his film Missing (1982), about an American whose son was killed in the Chilean military coup of 1973; but the leftist drive has become considerably weak-ened, and by the nineties, he was directing a remake of Billy Wilder’s early fifties melodrama, Ace in the Hole, Mad City.

* The similarity is probably coincidence, unless Solás had seen Russell’s television films.

* The sexist content of the pop song, as well as Rocha’s treatment of Laura–who is associated with the Great Whore of Babylon–may not be defensible, but does need to be seen in context, he was unable to come to terms with the machismo of his culture or see it as part of the great complex of oppresion.

* Robert Stam reported that the Brazilian government has a booklet of censorship guidelines. It refers to the ” ’subversive techniques’ of Jean-Luc Godard and other leaders of ’international leftist cinema’”; Joseph Losey is called the ’world leftist leader’ of North American cinema, Sidney Pollack is an ’intransigent anti-American,’ Robert Altman sees North American society as a circus.... John G. Avildsen (who directed Rocky) is an enemy of North American authorities who actively attacks democracy, and Arthur Penn is an imitator and follower of Godard who satirizes and attempts to destroy religious faith—as well as the more thoroughly subversive filmmakers targeted in the booklet like Bertolucci, Chabrol, Resnais, Bellocchio, Antonioni and Ken Russell. In Brazil, Glauber Rocha and Ruy Guerra are singled out as being particularly dangerous.”

12”Censorship in Brazil,” Jump Cut, 21 (November, 1979), 20. This and the following number of Jump Cut contain a thorough history and analysis of Brazilian cinema. See also Julianne Burton, ”The Hour of the Embers: On the Current Situation of Latin American Cinema,” Film Quarterly, 30 (Fall, 1976), 33-44.

* Few of his films since the early seventies are available or have even been seen outside film festivals. His version of a Sophocles play, Elektreia, has only twelve shots. It is also reported that a more recent film, Allegro barbaro, while containing only twenty-two cuts, uses some of these to make comments through the juxtaposition of shots rather than merely linking one shot to another. This may indicate some interesting changes in his style.

15 William Kelly, ”Allegro Barbaro,” Film Quarterly, 34 (Fall, 1980), 47-53. The Hungarian director Bela Tarr attempts to continue Jancsó’s style.

* A postwar film from Eastern Europe, Andrzei Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958), concentrated on these very concerns in its examination of a young man hired to assassinate a communist leader. A later film by Wajda, Man of Marble (1977), attempts an inquiry into Poland’s Stalinist past by tracing the career of a young worker who was made a hero in the fifties, disgraced, and then left to oblivion. But Wajda attempts to bring history into the present. The documentary filmmaker who is searching for the worker discovers that he was killed in the uprising of 1970. The Polish government forbade Wajda to retain the sequence of that discovery in his film. During the brief liberalizing of the government in the early eighties, Wajda reclaimed the sequence for his 1981 sequel to the film, Man of Iron, which attempts to communicate, though not really explain, the events of the Solidarity movement.

* Makavejev’s later films—Sweet Movie, Montenegro, The Coca-Cola Kid—moved from the political to concentrate on the sexual.

* Influenced by Welles, The Conformist, and to lesser extent Last Tango, have them-selves had a great effect on two Italian-American directors, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. The visual and narrative style of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver owes much to The Conformist, as does the lighting style of the two Godfather films. In God­father II, Gastone Moschin, who plays Manganiello in The Conformist, acts the role of Fanucci, the Black Hander. For Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart Coppola used Bertolucci’s regular cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro.

* Both played by old neorealist actors: Marcel by Massimo Girotti, who played the lover in Ossessione; the mother-in-law by Maria Michi, who acted in Rome, Open City and Paisan

* The placing of the gum is one of those fine Brando gestures, the kind that details a character and inflects a sequence; it is so outstanding that Bertolucci remembered it, and in Luna had a character ”find” the wad of gum under a balcony railing, commenting, ”Jesus Christ, he leaves his gum all over the place.”

1 From ”To Posterity,” in Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems, trans. H. R. Hays (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 175.

2 Cf. James Monaco, ”The Costa-Gavras Syndrome,” Cineaste, 7 (1976), 18-22.

3 For a less harsh treatment of the Dziga Vertov films, see Monaco, New Wave, pp. 213-52. See also Sylvia Harvey, May ‘68 and Film Culture (London: The British Film Institute, 1980).

4 Wind from the East, in ”Weekend” and ”Wind from the East,” trans. Marianne Sinclair and Danielle Adkinson (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), pp. 164-65.

5 Karl Marx, ”Preface to The Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), p. 182.

6 ”Short Organum,” p. 190; see also pp. 180-83.

7 In their seminal article ”Cinema/ldeology/Criticism,” in Nichols, Movies and Methods, pp. 22-30, Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni offer a variety of interactions possible between form and content and discriminate between ideologies hidden, expressed, or criticized. See also Julianne Burton, ”Revolutionary Cuban Cinema: First Part: Introduction,” Jump Cut, 19 (December, 1978), 17-20.

8 Quoted in John Mraz, ”Lucia: Visual Style and Historical Portrayal,” Jump Cut, 19 (December, 1978), 21.

9 Ibid., pp. 25-27. Mraz’s reading parallels mine in many instances.

10 Ibid., p. 23.

11 A breakdown of the characters is offered by Thomas M. Kavanagh, ”Imperialism and Revolutionary Cinema: Glauber Rocha’s Antonio-das-Mortes,” Journal of Modern Literature, 3 (April, 1973), 201-13.

12 ”Hungarian Rhapsody,” Film Quarterly, 34 (Fall, 1980), 55.

13 This prayer was current at the time of the events of the film. See Graham Petrie, History Must Answer to Man: The Contemporary Hungarian Cinema (Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 1978), p. 97.

14 For a similar argument, see Joan Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (New York: Horizon Press, 1973), pp. 179-90.

15 Cf. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (New York: Vintage Books, 1955).

16 Godard, Masculine Féminine, ed. Pierre Billard and Robert Hughes (New York: Grove Press, 1969), pp. 176-77.

17 Ibid., 183-84.

18 Cf. Jim Hillier, ”Masculin-Féminin,” in The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Ian Cameron (New York: Praeger, 1969), pp. 124-25.

19 Cf. Martyn Auty, ”A Fassbinder Suicide,” Sight and Sound, 49 (Autumn, 1980), 266.

20 Eisenstein’s essay ”A Course in Treatment,” in Film Form, pp. 84-107, outlines his ideas on the use of internal monologue. Paul Taney pointed out the association.

21 Stephen Prince directed my attention to the Schopenhauer allusion.

22 In ”Fassbinder’s Sexual Politics,” p. 55.

23 A Married Woman in Godard: Three Films, trans. Susan Bennett (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 85.

24 This, of course, is a basic insight of Hannah Arendt; cf. The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), pp. 430-57.

25 Quoted by Roger Greenspun, ”Phantom of Liberty: Thoughts on Fassbinder’s Fist-Right of Freedom,” Film Comment, 11 (November-December, 1975), 10.

26 Cf. Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality, p. 144. My reading of the film is close to Mellen’s.

27 James Monaco makes these analogies in ”Mother’s’ Day Will Be a Little Late This Year,” The New York Times (December 2, 1973), p. 13.

28 Ibid.

29 Despair (from a Nabokov novel and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard) is not one of Fassbinder’s most successful films, though structurally it is among his most complex. A thorough reading of it is offered by Thomas Elsaesser, ”Murder, Merger, Suicide: The Politics of Despair,” in Rayns, Fassbinder, pp. 37-53.

30 The film is related to the psychological theories of Jacques Lacan, examined in more detail by Peter Mayer, ”Mr. Klein and the Other,” Film Quarterly, 34 (Winter, 1980-81), 35-39. Mayer’s reading of the film’s opening sequences are similar to mine.

31 See Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality, pp. 191-202.

32 Tristana, trans. Nicholas Fry (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971), pp. 48, 76.

33 ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, 16 (Autumn, 1975), 11-12.

34 Cf. David Overbey, ”Cet obscur objet du désir,” Sight and Sound, 47 (Winter, 1977/78), 8.

35 Ibid.

36 Quoted by Buache, Cinema of Buñuel, p. 7.

Table des illustrations

Légende Master and slave. The Last Supper (Unifilm)
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Légende Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) leads on a rope the insurgent he once supported. Burn! (United Artists)
Fichier image/jpeg, 98k
Légende The three Lucías: above: 1895, below: 1932; next page (at center, with Tomás) the 1960s (Raquel Revuelta, Eslinda Nuñez, Adela Legra). Lucía (Unifilm)
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Fichier image/jpeg, 98k
Fichier image/jpeg, 122k
Légende The Bolivian Indians. Blood of the Condor (Unifilm)
Fichier image/jpeg, 143k
Légende The fight between Antonio and Coirana. Antonio Das Mortes (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 231k
Légende St. George slays the dragon. Antonio das Mortes (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 131k
Légende The Three Graces on the Hungarian plain. Red Psalm (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 139k
Légende Family life. Rain and Shine (New Yorker Films)
Fichier image/jpeg, 83k
Légende Angi Vera and her mentor, Traján (Veronika Papp, Erzsi Pástor). Angi Vera (New Yorker Films)
Fichier image/jpeg, 75k
Légende Paul and Madeleine (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Chantal Goya). Masculin-féminin (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 125k
Légende Reflections of despair: Elvira (Volker Spengler). In a Year of Thirteen Moons (New Yorker Films)
Fichier image/jpeg, 78k
Légende Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) at the dance: repressed, isolated. The Conformist (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 119k
Légende A figure of desolation. Paul (Marlon Brando) in Last Tango in Paris (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 139k
Légende Servant and master (Dirk Bogarde, James Fox). The Servant (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 159k
Légende Mathieu (Fernando Rey) and one incarnation of his Conchita (Carole Bouquet). That Obscure Object of Desire (Films Incorporated)
Fichier image/jpeg, 77k
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