Posts Tagged revolution

Daisies (Chytilová, 1966)

Has the desire to transgress ever been as giddily infectious as it is in Daisies (1966)? Though constructed in a manner that stubbornly defies all forms of categorisation, Věra Chytilová’s cinematic acid trip is inseparable from its context: a Czechoslovak “New Wave” feature whose title anticipates Flower Power and whose content foretells the Prague Spring, this eerily prescient film is practically a revolution unto itself. A brisk, seventy-minute shot to the senses that counters the counterculture with its anarchic bravado, Daisies teems to the brim with a psychedelic mêlée of absurdism, Dadaism and nihilism. Whether or not the director would care for such heady philosophies is another matter altogether, for the bulk of the film’s tone is informed by a swaggering rambunctiousness that cogently eulogises the sheer joy of rebellion. It’s this blissful irreverence which thereby reveals itself as the name of Chytilová’s game – and it’s a game in which she has few, if any peers.

Plot and characterisation are but peripheral concepts in this most capricious of satires. Two young women – the exact status of their relationship remains unclear – decide on a whim to go “bad”, and accordingly proceed to run riot in the society to which they had previously subscribed. Daisies‘ shrewd trump card is to have Chytilová running riot alongside them, with both the director and her protagonists thus working in tandem to recreate the rapture of liberation from their respective orders. As the film’s insouciant duo upend and overturn social codes and conventions, Chytilová entirely rescinds the rules of narrative filmmaking, instead choosing to illustrate her gifts as a radical aesthetician. Formal eccentricities are abound: rapid-fire jump-cuts and photomontages, flagrant discrepancies in film stock, and an erratic use of colour filters all serve to electrify her canvas – doing little to unite the disconnected (though interrelated) scenarios, but nonetheless intriguing the viewer enough to function as some sort of visual glue that coagulates the film (Chytilová unsurprisingly revels in the paradox). In Daisies‘ most startling setpiece, the director redefines her spacial parameters, splicing the actors with their settings and embedding them into a cinematic collage that astonishingly renders both foreground and background impotent – the helpless victims of a cubist assault upon the frame.

Any attempts to locate substance in this impenetrably florid exercise are audaciously repelled by the filmmaker’s commitment to ambiguity. In a rare, coherent piece of dialogue, one of the girls tellingly enquires: “Why do they say ‘I love you’? Why don’t they say, for example, ‘egg’?” By querying the sanctity of such an emotionally-loaded phrase, she subliminally points towards an endemic breakdown in everyday communication (if “I love you” has no meaning then what does?) – a concern that Chytilová upholds by exalting action over words and supplanting spoken language with film language. But therein lies the key to the text, for as nonsensical as Daisies aspires to be, its avant-garde farce is not beyond comprehension; fragments of a political agenda are readily discernible upon overcoming and interpreting its visual ingenuity. What, for example, does one make of a character’s decision to slice up phallic food items with a pair of scissors whilst a pining lover professes his devotion down the phone? Or how does one construe the ritual exploitation and subsequent repudiation of all potential “sugar daddies”? Resistant though the film may (quite rightly) be towards feminist labelling – why should all female-centric efforts with a woman behind the camera be instantly suspected as such? – it nevertheless soars as an exhilarating celebration of femininity itself. How refreshing a subversion it is to witness women embracing their bodies, minds and spirits in such reckless abandon, with only the most superficial of needs for those creatures that we know as “men”.

And yet, both director and audience are acutely aware that such indulgences cannot last. Certainly not in a state where citizenship and obedience take precedence over gender and sexuality. Perhaps Daisies‘ sole instance of sincere profundity resides in a sequence that maps the women’s reactions to society’s silent immobilisation of their rebellion: as the males that they challenge now learn to neutralise their delinquency with blanket disregard, our heroines’ ensuing confusion exposes the fundamental need for attention that predicates a successful insurgency. In refusing those needs, the social order unmasks itself as a sterile leviathan; its mundane surfaces an inadequate disguise for the formidable foe which quashes resistance with little hesitation. Surely, sadly, it is naïve to expect anything but. The incendiary merit of Chytilová’s despondent finale – where the “bad girls” offer up a vain appeasement by going “good”, only to then get crushed anyway – derives its weight from the opening montage that it mirrors: a ragged chassé between shots of a turning flywheel and scenes of man-made destruction; the implication of cyclical carnage and the futility of revolutions colouring the picture from its outset.

Within these stark bookends however, the director scribes a manifesto whose guiding principle is exemplified by Daisies‘ most gleeful escapade: a whimsical jaunt in a nightclub, where our beloved twosome throw caution to the wind and replicate the headlining act by dancing and drinking to their hearts’ contents – much to the distaste of their bourgeois comrades. The joie de vivre of partaking in this caper is a welcome contagion that uncovers the film’s deepest, most revelatory tenets by (typically) asking a series of questions. Is it more worthwhile to be a passive observer who engages with society, or an active participant who engages with life? Would we rather exist for a century as unquestioning conformists, or risk an early death by living but for a few brief minutes? For all Chytilová’s glorious abstractions and cryptograms, the mystery of where her film’s allegiance lies is not really a mystery at all – betrayed during Daisies‘s runtime by the iconoclastic potency of her vision, her immortal, concluding tribute merely adds icing to the cake:

Dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.

Enough said.

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Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930)

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Communism is great. At least, that’s what Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth appears to argue on the surface. Reviled in some quarters as little more than Stalinist propaganda, and dismissed by Stalin himself as not being Stalinist enough, Dovzhenko’s stirring paean to the natural world has found itself the victim of libellous and slanderous claims ever since its controversial release some eighty years ago. Credit the director then, for crafting a film that sustains such accusations despite conforming to its preordained function (a celebratory brochure for the collectivisations that were a crucial component in the First Five-Year Plan). Earth‘s threadbare narrative completes its designated task with aplomb: a straightforward tale of heroes (socialist peasants) vs. villains (capitalist kulaks) that features a solid dose of class warfare and concludes with a triumphant affirmation of communism as an instigator of positive, radical change. The problem therefore lies with Dovzhenko’s presentation of this material, which restyles the text’s Soviet proselytism into a universal, philosophical treatise that ruminates upon the transience of mortality. The director subsequently incorporates the fervent ideological conflicts of his era into a wider, pantheistic framework that exalts Mother Nature as society’s pre-eminent driving force alongside – or, perhaps even above – the Party itself. Today, the film’s propagandistic tendencies threaten to render it an intriguing historical relic, but its numerous aesthetic and thematic nuances offer an alternative outlook: that of Earth as a timeless, essential work of art.

There exists within the discussion of cinema an understandable tendency to lump Dovzhenko’s oeuvre alongside those of his Soviet contemporaries; the formalist inclinations of Eisenstein and Vertov presumably offering an easy point of commonality to complement their shared ‘nationality’. But whilst Dovzhenko certainly utilises the theoretical frameworks advocated by his estimable peers, his Earth finds itself prone to sentimental impulses that enervate such comparisons. Consider the film’s bookending sequences, ripe with images of outstanding beauty: flocculent cloads, rain-drenched apples, windswept wheat-fields – simple, evocative tributes to the wonders of nature that nestle themselves firmly inside the viewer’s psyche. The director draws from the organic allure of such visuals, using them to reorient the film’s introductory death scene to the point of exquisite absurdity: a village elder ends up confronting his fate on a bed of wild fruit, bathed in the gorgeous radiance of the morning sun. Nary has the act of dying seemed so beguiling, viewed here as an opportunity to be absolved directly by Gaia herself. And therein lies the deviance of the Earth‘s approach, for where his compatriots chose to electrify their audiences with the kinetic furore of their editing, Dovzhenko spends much of his time actively tempering the ferocity of this revolutionary spirit, preferring instead to embed his own montages within the cyclical, apolitical revolutions of the cosmos (just as it begins with a death, the film concludes with a birth).

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Not unexpectedly, Dovzhenko embeds some Party policy within this spiritual roundelay in an attempt to appease the powers that be. Accordingly, the emergence of the kolkhoz is viewed through a near-Darwinian lens; an evolutionary necessity, born to nudge humanity further along the road towards enlightenment. Evolution however, can be a painful and elongated process – something which the director explores with surprising depth thanks to the generational conflicts that intensify his subtexts. From the aforementioned opening sequence (which posits the old man’s death against the indifference of youngsters playing in the fields) to the weight that’s afforded to the ideological tensions between a father and son (the former is initially sceptical of collectivisation, whilst the latter is one of its strongest proponents), Earth is brimming with friction between past and present, tradition and modernity. These differences brew to an ire and, erred on by the Marxist doctrines upon which the entire conceit is built, overflow into an obstreperous dismissal of the religious orthodoxy that enfeebled yesterday’s peasantry. The director’s denunciation steers clear of outright hostility however – religion is merely another of those archaic afflictions weaned out by the eternal cycle of natural regeneration. In a society on the verge of industrialisation, the maledictions of hysterical preachers (“Punish them, God! Punish them!”) eventually fade into obsolescence behind a vociferous congregation of class unity.

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Acting as the agent for all this development is an unassuming tractor. Cast alternately as a saviour by the farmers and an adversary by the kulaks for the very same reason (its potential to erase social inequality between the two groups), its messianic arrival is captured in a frenetic montage where the entire agricultural community – livestock included – awaits in fervent anticipation as the vehicle (a surrogate for modernisation) makes its painfully slow encroachment upon the village. In a new, mechanised age, man-made creations assume a disproportionate significance in relation to their masters: “WE WILL PROSPER WITH MACHINES!”, exclaims a villager; “This is the end!”, mourns a kulak. The question therefore arises as to how Dovzhenko himself views all this commotion. Although the jubilation of the peasantry proves well-founded as a result of the increased productivity engineered by their new acquisition, the director’s montages provide scope for ambivalence. For all its anti-clericalism, Earth remains a curiously metaphysical film: a pastoral cine-poem whose rural landscapes are infused with the palpable presence of paganistic wraiths (wheat-fields have never seemed so alive). Dovzhenko, moreover, isn’t above taking discreet potshots at his government, with an early dialogue exchange appearing to query the validity of the Soviet Labour Medal. Thus, the extended sequence in which he charts the tractor’s gargantuan capability to plough offers a cause for alarm, particularly given that it’s contrasted against a farmer wielding his primitive (but comparatively innocent) sickle. The director’s rhythmic editing focuses on the destruction that these new machines can wreak upon the serene, diffident earth, and overtly questions man’s abuse of his symbiosis with nature. An early precursor to current ecological movements this could well be – especially during an extraordinary funeral procession where the branches of apple trees and the leaves of sunflower plants actually caress an embalmed corpse in a credible act of grief – but Dovzhenko’s text is unavoidably as dialectic as it is bucolic: he reveres and yearns for the modest past, but he recognises that a new future must be forged if his comrades are to progress.

Riddled with ambiguities and complexities that belie its citizenship, Earth is at its most galvanising as an affirmation of the human spirit. “Propaganda” is a slur that befits, but one that refuses to account for the uncharacteristic warmth that heartens the work. Dovzhenko’s socialist anger has a winning sense of humour: consider the peasants who feel compelled to urinate into the tractor’s radiator, or the ridiculous graphic matching that attempts to twin cows with kulaks. Throughout the film, the director displays a commitment to emotional matter that invigorates his class-conscious lyricism; dispensing entirely with establishing shots and relocating his narrative’s momentum to the forthright, honest close-ups of isolated faces. Always, Dovzhenko spares time to outline the human costs of his drama, and never more so than in his corybantic finale which interweaves birth and death, politics and religion, despair and ecstasy into a stupefying montage that belatedly unleashes the revolutionary zeal that he’d previously repressed. It’s a perfectly-executed climax, and a resounding tribute to the potential of cinema itself. Yet the honour of Earth‘s greatest montage must surely go to that which is also its simplest. After nightfall, the narrative’s nominal hero opts to take a casual stroll through his village following a day in which his dream of mass production (and consequently, class parity) became a reality. Brimming with joy and pride, he spontaneously begins to substitute walking for dancing, and then proceeds to caper into the surrounding fields, his feet restless with sheer elation. Dovzhenko captures this impulsion and, in an inspired move, refuses to let go – engulfing his audience in his protagonist’s euphoria, and following his sentimental journey through to its complete realisation; all the while cutting to increasingly distanced vantage points that memorialise his surrounding homeland. This apparent divergence serves as a reminder of the bliss that progressive change can offer, yet it draws its poignancy from the benefit of our hindsight: Earth was filmed in the director’s native Ukraine – once the “breadbasket of Europe”, and the republic which suffered most of all under the Holodomor, an event that occurred as a direct result of the policies that the film exalts. The bitter irony of life after the film’s closing frame is devastating, but rather than detracting from Dovzhenko’s central message, history has done him a favour and movingly eulogised it: once upon a time, there was hope.

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Black God, White Devil (Rocha, 1964)

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Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetics of Hunger – a 1965 essay which attempts to explicate the Cinema Novo – reads like a convoluted mass of allegations, opacities and rhetoric (none of which are necessarily without substance). Somewhere within these imbroglios however, one stumbles upon an assertion that’s especially jarring:

We, makers of those ugly and sad films, those shouted and desperate films where reason does not always speak in the loudest voice, we know that hunger will not be cured by the cabinet’s formulations and that Technicolor patches do not hide, but only worsen, hunger’s tumours. Thus, only a culture of hunger, drenched in its own structures, can take a qualitative leap. And the noblest cultural manifestation of hunger is violence.

Black God, White Devil (Rocha’s directorial effort from the preceding year) is borne of hunger: a hunger to represent the marginalised, a hunger to empower the disenfranchised, and a hunger for a new, incendiary film language to articulate such grievances. Accordingly, the film seethes with violence; a ravenous cine-beast whose furious kineticism lashes wildly against an entire panorama of antiquated institutions and ruthless oppressors. From Church to state, wealthy landowners to penniless bandits, no one is spared the full brunt of the director’s polemical tirades and, as we soon discover, no one deserves to be. Predicated by an infectious belief in the transformative potential of the cinema (where governments fail, it will succeed), Rocha’s unwavering commitment to the plight of the impoverished reveals itself to be as estimable as it is necessary.

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In response to those pestiferous “Technicolor patches” that he so decries, the director crafts a realist phantasm that rips itself asunder with a series of stubbornly-defined oppositions. The crisp, high-contrast monochromes of his visuals act as deliberate extensions of his textual antinomies: spiritualism vs. secularism; decadence vs. poverty; order vs. chaos. Simplistic they may well be, but they allow Rocha to craft an eviscerating, multi-pronged attack upon man’s ineptitude in dealing with destitution that’s designed to mould the viewer’s innate passivity into revolutionary activity. The subsequent profile of humanity which emerges is disheartening to say the least: all escape routes available to the fugitive farmers at his narrative’s heart will lead only to exploitation – both within accepted civilisation as well as outside of it.

As his title’s English translation suggests however, Rocha brazenly resists the most basic opposition of them all. The eternal conflict between good and evil is rendered a far-flung myth in his portrait of moral disarray – a world in which everyone, regardless of class distinctions, succumbs to primitivism. Whilst one would expect the quasi-Marxist Rocha to cast a critical gaze upon members of the bourgeoisie and the clergy, he remains equally unsparing when examining his more economically-beleaguered characters. No one escapes untainted from the pessimism that envelops this canvas, though the director is astute enough to ask all the pertinent questions: his peasantry is hapless (why?), naïve (why??) and uneducated (why???). Without the basic tools necessary to capacitate themselves, how can one expect them to negotiate – let alone challenge – the repressive structures of a disordered and rampageous society? Hunger thus devolves into greed – as poisonous a desire as ever there was – and it’s this that triggers the undoing of nearly all of the text’s misguided individuals. In Rocha’s hands, the concept of famine fleetly expands beyond the scarcity of food and burgeons into a pathological dearth of feeling.

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Though devised as a cinematic manifesto, Black God ends up sourcing its potency from much more than its director’s ardent ideological convictions. The pain of historical memory weighs down upon the film, with frequent references to the massacres, messiahs and marauders of the past submerging the viewer in the distinct local history of the Brazilian sertão. Rocha thus draws an established link between the extreme paucity of this vast, barren landscape and the frantic fanaticism that such despair engenders (culminating as it does with the reign of the cangaço). The subsequent  breakdown in law and order serves only to further enervate the underclasses, the group that remains most susceptible to changes initiated elsewhere within (or outside) the social hierarchy. The director observes all this with palpable anger, layering despondence upon futility as he weaves a canvas that’s informed by a single guiding principle: to avoid the mistakes of yesteryear.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Rocha’s pièce de résistance – the stimulus which allows his film to generate so electrifying an impact – is neither his socio-political agenda nor his historical knowledge, but his ferocious grasp of style. Orchestrated gunshots litter his soundtrack alongside traditional folk music (the latter conceived as oral storytelling to supplement his narrative), causing his action to unfold as something of a brutal filmic ballad. A spectacular array of compositions and setpieces then expose the raw power of the cinematic image: from the close-ups of rotting carcasses that open the film, to the dumbfounding scene in which a Christian cross is painted onto a human head using a murdered newborn’s still-warm blood, Black God reads like a photo album of poverty devolving into its most harrowing extremes. Meanwhile, Rocha deftly appropriates the language of the American western – the stark, desolate vistas of the sertão that so dominate his imagery surely functioning as a wry subversion of Monument Valley’s near-fetishisation; the ugly, debilitated stepbrother to the grand old Fordian myth. The director’s decision to shroud his characters in all this de-glorified emptiness is integrated into an overarching scheme that’s designed to replicate guerilla warfare within the cinema: the elongated lulls and silences of his wastelands are shattered by the thundering velocity of Eisensteinian montages that startle with their bloody severity. And therein lies the secret of Rocha’s mutinous art, for the relationship between awareness (as through his landscapes) and action (as compelled by his editing) is key to his solution. As Black God lapses into mayhem for one last time during its chaotic finale, there’s little doubt that the director understands the Sisyphean odyssey that his pitiful individuals have to confront on all-too regular a basis. But with a camera in the hand and an idea in the head, he evidently hopes to do so much more than simply shine a light upon their suffering – Rocha wishes to trigger an uprising within the cinema itself. For him, and perhaps even for us, the revolution will begin here.

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