Wajda’s career is absolutely titanic. His legendary trilogy of World War II-era Poland shot him into the spotlight. A Generation (1955) was a slightly romantic look at the Polish underground and the appeal of Marxism to resistance fighters. Kanal (1956) is a claustrophobic look at the Warsaw uprising, almost all in the canals under the city. Ashes and Diamonds (1958) shows an already divided and increasingly corrupt post-war Poland, even though it is set on the last day of the war, when ideological factionalism and the elimination of threats to the new communist order are taking over. This trilogy, with its eyes wide open honesty about the bravery of the resistant movement and the hard decisions to follow, is remarkable.
The only Wajda film from the 60s I have seen is The Siberian Lady MacBeth (1962), which is excellent although not quite in the same league as his very best. Wajda first came to my attention when I saw his unbelievable Man of Marble (1977), a searing view into the hypocrisy of postwar Poland and the betrayal of the revolution that tells a story of a young idealistic filmmaker (who only owns one set of clothes evidently) and her search to find out about a once idealized and now-forgotten bricklayer, chewed up and spit out by the socialist paradise. Wajda managed to stay in Poland after this, only to follow up with Man of Iron (1981), a follow up film about the Solidarity movement that actually has Lech Walesa in it. This finally forced Wajda out. He moved to France. There, he kept up his films of history and freedom with a biopic of Danton (1983) that might be the best film ever made about the French Revolution. Wajda returned to France after the overthrow of the communist government. His last masterpiece was Katyn (2007), an appropriate film for him as his father was killed there. This is a devastating examination of the erasure of an entire generation of leaders. One wonders what could have been otherwise for postwar Poland.
Wajda consistently made beautiful films about political and personal freedom. His loss is tremendous.
So who is now the greatest living filmmaker? I say it is Martin Scorsese.
Since 2003, counterinsurgency training has become an important field of professional military education, with centers and programs springing up at institutions like the US Military academy at West Point, the National Defense University, and the Naval War College. A search of these institutions’ websites indicates that The Battle of Algiers is a fixture of these courses. At West Point, it’s shown regularly in the French and Arabic programs. A flier for an upcoming screening explained that the film is of interest because it uses “language in a political and military context” and because “the issues faced by the French in Algeria are many of the same issues currently faced by the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.” It’s also shown in courses offered at USMA’s Combating Terrorism Center. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Price told me that he uses the film to illustrate methods such as sector-by-sector containment and the impact of decapitating a movement’s leadership, and as a case study of what works and what doesn’t.
All of the defense professionals whom I spoke with tied their interest in the film to their advocacy of counterinsurgency strategies that emphasize political solutions and reject tactics such as torture. David Ucko, an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University, said that he encourages foreign security personnel who are engaged in combating terrorism to focus on establishing political legitimacy. In his eyes, the inescapable lesson of The Battle of Algiers is that if you act as the French did in Algeria, you’re going to lose.
Somewhat contrary to my expectations, these conversations didn’t leave me with the impression that military educators’ approach to teaching The Battle of Algiers is particularly doctrinaire. Price told me that he encourages students to interrogate the concept of terrorism and the definition of a terrorist. He also said that while most cadets identify with the French, some end up taking the side of the Algerian insurgents. Ucko similarly noted that the film helps his students to humanize the enemy.
But if the teaching of The Battle of Algiers in policy and military contexts isn’t closed-minded, it does raise some other questions. To hold that it’s better to win people over with values and ideas rather than by force is good in principle, but it assumes that there are social and political principles that could unite all parties. This seems highly questionable in a situation such as Iraq, where the objectives of the US presence have been far less straightforward than those of the French in Algeria, and where “insurgency” has become increasingly protean.
Another issue is the apparent lack of attention paid to the film as a film — to the questions of storytelling and cinematography that preoccupy cultural scholars. The film seems to be taught in military colleges as a mirror of history, while history is approached as a reservoir of examples from which lessons can be drawn. Ben Nickels, an associate professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, observed that this approach is somewhat symptomatic of the field of military history as a whole. Over the last 30 years, military history has all but vanished from the academic mainstream, flourishing only in professional military education, where it has been sheltered from historiographical practices that focus on primary documents as contingent representations.
That is fundamentally true about military history within the academy. As its’ become more isolated, it’s hardly surprising that it would fall further and further behind the rest of the field conceptually. Also, I taught Battle of Algiers in my summer film course a couple of years ago and one of the students, who was an ex-Marine who had gone to Lebanon just after the barracks were blown up, said they watched it back then to understand what was happening in the Middle East. I mean, I think there are things one can learn from films, but it worries me that the leading document to understand the contemporary Middle East within the military establishment is a fifty-year old film made by an Italian Marxist about a secular, nationalist revolutionary movement.
In 1958, Alain Resnais made an industrial film, for whatever reason. Money I assume. Le Chant du Styrène is about plastics. It’s also an absolutely beautiful film, really a wonderful artifact of postwar modernism. Unfortunately, the only copy on YouTube I can find is subtitled–in Spanish. But even if you don’t speak French or read Spanish, you can still follow along as Resnais takes us through the wonderful world of oil-based products.
Many years ago, a historian friend showed me a copy of the British documentary “Show Down at Aspen,” on Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for mayor of Aspen. Finally, I have found it online. This is really fantastic and very much worth your time. It’s NSFW, both because of hippie nudity and drug use. The best part is between about minutes 5 and 10, which begins with a young cop descending on a hippie gathering and smoking some joints with them, followed by some old people talking about the evils of drugs while getting loaded on their drug of choice, booze. Throughout the film, there are surprises, with older people supporting Thompson and younger people who one might even call hippies are voting for the incumbent because they recognize Thompson is unstable and that no one is really getting busted for drugs in Aspen under the current sheriff.
Maybe Bridges absorbed some aspect of this uncertainty, let it grow inside him into a kind of stance against his times. He made a startling number of westerns and neo-westerns in the Seventies, a decade when the western was supposed to be dead — from Robert Benton’s Bad Company (1972), about young, draft-dodging thieves during the Civil War, to Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West (1975), about an impressionable Depression-era youth who sets off to find the frontier and instead becomes a cowboy movie stuntman, to Frank Perry’s Rancho Deluxe (1975), about a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers. (Even when the films aren’t westerns, they borrow from the idiom: The Last Picture Show lives in the shadow of the genre and the myth of a dying frontier. So does Hell or High Water. Ranger Hamilton is a throwback, but he’s a throwback to something that never really existed. Near the end, we see him come home, and we notice that he doesn’t live in a tent, nor in a room above a saloon, nor on a ranch. Instead, he has a nice, modern house in town, filled with modern conveniences and a big-screen TV.)
Yet Bridges was never really a typical western actor. For most of his career, he had none of the gruffness or stoic, wounded terseness of an archetypal cowboy hero. In fact, he was the opposite. He was chummy, light on his feet, even naïve — part surfer, part tenderfoot. In those early roles, he’s something of a foil for western heroes: In Hearts of the West, he plays opposite Andy Griffith; in Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), he co-stars with Clint Eastwood, who is everything Jeff Bridges is not. His presence is an almost modernizing one, as a bright-eyed but self-aware kid who can see that the world around him is disappearing. A lot of these films end with his character defeated but spiritually intact. Even death passes over Jeff Bridges gently.
I haven’t seen a lot of these films. But I have seen the somewhat bizarre and fascinating utter failure that is the 1979 Winter Kills. In this film, Bridges plays the brother of an assassinated president (a thinly veiled JFK figure of course) who tries to find the real killer. This film includes John Huston as his blue-speaking vile father (awesome), Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milan, and Toshiro Mifune playing Huston’s Japanese servant. And I have to tell you, Toshiro Mifune should play no man’s servant. It’s a disaster of a movie with an out of control cast and like so many mediocre films of the 70s, is certainly interesting.
These movies identify the filmmaker as a student of behavior. But the repetitiveness also has a cumulative power. By the end of each film, you’re overwhelmed by the humanity you’ve witnessed; all those individual interactions, coming one after the other, suggest a world of breadth and density. The word that always comes to mind when I think of these documentaries is voracious: You get the sense that Kiarostami could spend his whole life in that principal’s office, or that intersection, or that classroom, just watching people be. And you might gladly stay there with him, sharing his fascination.
Even in these early works Kiarostami questions form, occasionally undercutting directorial authority and supposed objectivity with clever edits or random digressions that draw attention to the artificiality of his endeavors. But he never undercuts sincerity; rather, the structural and stylistic playfulness always ends up reasserting the dignity of his subjects.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the incredible run of narrative films the director made from the late 1980s through the 1990s. The most seismic of these was 1990’s Close-Up, based on a real-life case in which a poor, movie-obsessed hustler took advantage of a bourgeois Tehran family by pretending he was the celebrated Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami restaged the events of the case, with the real people — victims and perpetrator — playing themselves, and then intercut those scenes with what appears to be documentary footage of the man on trial. Except that the documentary footage itself would turn out to be staged: Kiarostami had scripted the defendant’s lines, as well as the family’s forgiveness; he’d even handled some of the questioning from off-camera. The endlessly fractured perspective complicates our ideas of reality and fiction, of celebrity and identity, of directorial distance and intervention. But unlike so much of what we call “self-conscious cinema,” Close-Up never denies us emotion: At the end, the con man meets the real Makhmalbaf and promptly bursts into tears — a discomfiting and deeply heartbreaking moment. All the frames collapse into one; postmodern need not mean post-human.
This is an interesting discussion of how the corporation has become a popular culture villain. But I think it’s a remarkably apolitical way that doesn’t really transfer over to distrust of corporations today. The article focuses primarily on science fiction, going back to Soylent Green, which I just watched for the first time last week and which fascinated me because I wondered if it was the first major film to focus on climate change. It is, in its own way, a really interesting look at environmental problems at a time when this was just coming to be a central part of American culture.
In any case, what strikes me is that as late as today, popular culture’s consistent creation of the villainous corporation seems to not affect people’s actual vision of corporations at all. That is certainly true in recent cultural portrayals of corporations in the present. When I saw The Big Short, I wanted to go burn some banks. But that film, as well-received and relatively widely-seen as it was, seemingly had no effect on most of the people who actually watched it, even though they personally may have been completely screwed by the housing bubble. I don’t remember much of anything when it came out about what an indictment of capitalism it was. There was perhaps a bit more of this with The Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps because any Scorsese film gets more cultural recognition and perhaps because he portrayed his characters in such a way that would make viewers either want to be them or loathe them with great passion. But even that film has hardly proven some cultural anti-capitalist touchstone.
So I guess the corporation is this bad guy in sci-fi culture, but I sure wish it has some connection to real life.
I don’t want to embed because I don’t want it to somehow be taken down, but you really should watch the 1983 film Born in Flames. Imagine a world 10 years after a Bernie Sanders-style socialist revolution. The Party is leading the nation but women are as oppressed as ever. So a collective of black lesbian feminists who run a radio station start organizing and agitating for a real revolution. White feminists are uncomfortable. But when the state cracks down after one of the black feminist leaders visits the Western Sahara revolutionary movement to procure guns for the new revolution, the white feminists slowly start converting to the broader cause. One of said white feminists is Kathryn Bigelow, long before Zero Dark Thirty. It’s made for nothing and sure, there are some problems with script and plot. On the other hand, it’s a pretty unique film.
New York has a black mayor named Zubrinsky, the U.S. has a socialist President named Metzger, but, just as official socialist broadcasting proves indistinguishable from the corporate kind, so socialist party politics prove as inflexible and hidebound as those of capitalist times, and, under Zella’s guidance, women seek to take direct, and violent, action to break with both.
Borden constructs this large-scale social drama like a collage, with faux newscasts and talk shows, fictionalized documentary footage, police-surveillance tapes and the officials’ commentary on them, protests and confrontations, organizational meetings and strategy sessions, behind-the-scenes looks at the broadcasters Isabel and Honey on the air, musical performance, and intimate glances at private life in a time of conflict. She proves herself to be a far more imaginative and farsighted screenwriter than many celebrated Hollywood figures, because she sees the plot from a wide range of perspectives and circumstances, including one that she palpably views with hostility. Borden’s very sense of what constitutes a story, and how to realize it in images and sounds, is as radical as the social politics that she asserts.
The raw tone of her filming is nonetheless canny and precise; blunt closeups in contrasty light have a rough sculptural solidity, and the confrontational simplicity of the images evokes a rare blend of anger and analysis, affirmation and questioning. Leftism, Borden asserts, isn’t enough; a political revolution, to have any deep effect, must be a revolution in ideas and attitudes, a cultural and an intimate revolution that itself involves the media and the arts—and of which “Born in Flames” itself is an example.
Yeah, I think there’s more than a few relevant points for present left politics in this film.
I watched Pickup on South Street earlier this week. It was great, but equally good was the bonus material that included Sam Fuller talking about how he got such an overtly unpatriotic film with no sympathetic characters made, which was himself and Darryl Zanuck going to J. Edgar Hoover, listening to his objections, and then Fuller pointing out that they both knew the same corrupt cops and the like who had done the very things Fuller shows in the film.
Finally, I saw Lady Snowblood for the first time last night. So. Incredibly. Awesome. Lots of spurting blood with geyser sound effects combined with beautiful cinematography is my kind of thing.