Monday, January 03, 2011

VIVA LA REVOLUTION! Day 1: Reasons to rebel

Viva la Revolution! The Agitation of the Mind joins forces with The Film Connoisseur for three days of revolution on film.

What makes a revolutionary? What causes someone to rebel against the accepted (or enforced) order of things? Where exactly is the dividing line between the freedom fighter and the terrorist? How easy is it to cross the line? These questions occupy a middle ground between idealism and activism; between the realization that a government/system/establishment is oppressive and the reality of risking one’s life/taking up arms to do something about it. These are powerful and morally difficult questions. It’s no surprise, then, that filmmakers have responded to the dramatic potential of the revolutionary figure.

Over these next three days, I’m joining forces with Francisco at The Film Connoisseur to present a celebration of revolution on film. Francisco will be exploring the cinematic representation of real-life revolutionaries, including an in-depth appraisal of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che Guevara biopic. He’ll also be looking at films which celebrate the revolutionary achieving their political or social aims and instigating change.

Here on The Agitation of the Mind, I’ll be kicking things off today by considering what makes a rebel or a revolutionary. Tomorrow, I’ll be posting an article on depictions of revolutionary activity in my home country, with specific reference to movie adaptations of two of George Orwell’s most famous novels. On Wednesday, as a counterpoint to Francisco’s piece on successful revolutionaries, Agitation will sound a requiem for those who died for or because of their beliefs.

But let’s start by asking: what do we mean by “rebel” or “revolutionary”?

Personally, I don’t think anyone’s ever bettered Albert Camus’s eight-word definition: “A rebel is a man who says ‘no’.”

There’s a sliding scale to saying ‘no’. We’ve all probably done it at some point in our life. Ever sat through an appraisal at work that you’ve considered unjustly critical or had a complaint made against you by a colleague that was bullshit and as a result you’ve stood up against your line manager and spoken your mind and refused to take the crap that’s being dished out at you? You have? Congratulations: you’re a rebel. Now imagine that your firm is the government or your line manager is a corrupt despot. Imagine that instead of arguing the toss in a meeting room you’re carrying a gun and hiding in the forests or the mountains. Imagine that instead of possibly losing your job you could possibly lose your life.

Like I say: it’s a sliding scale. The point is, you don’t have to be political, idealistic or reactionary in your mindset. The average joe can become a revolutionary. It just takes a convergence of circumstances. Something that tests your mettle or opens your eyes to the truth. In John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’, transient labourer George Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers a pair of sunglasses which filter out the sheen of “normality” behind which the truth of the world is revealed: everything is propaganda. Behind the images on advertising hoardings, behind the columns of print in newspapers, behind the glossy photos in magazines there are orders: OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT; the design on banknotes hides the reminder: MONEY IS YOUR GOD.

Although pitched, particularly in its second half, on a borderline comedic level, ‘They Live’ is as acerbic, bitter and righteously angry as, say, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ or ‘Network’ (considered tomorrow and Wednesday respectively) in its depiction of a controlling oligarchy who deliberately subjugate and mislead the masses. Nada fights back as bluntly and unsubtly as one would expect of a working class hero, and the majority of his struggle is to open other people’s eyes. The scene where he gets into a five-minute punch-up with a friend who’s chary of donning the glasses is an hilariously satirical metaphor for the lengths to which some people will go for a quiet life – people who don’t want to see the truth and are more comfortable to accept things as they are.

John Carpenter’s work is full of rebellious characters who have no respect for authority and are willing to go the distance if provoked or disenfranchised. Arguably the most iconic of these characters is ‘Snake’ Plissken (Kurt Russell) in ‘Escape from New York’ and ‘Escape from L.A.’ The first film posits a dystopian future where the island of Manhattan has been turned into an open prison, walled off, the bridges leading to the mainland mined and escape attempts across the water quickly terminated by helicopter patrols. The prison, which contains only criminals, has developed its own form of society where the strongest, personified by The Duke (Isaac Hayes), rule and those with special abilities (such as Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain, who has refined the fuel that allows The Duke to run his ramshackle kingdom) are protected as long as their fealty is paid.

Into this environment hurtles an escape pod jettisoned from Air Force One: the President (Donald Pleasance), evading the freedom fighters who have gained control of his plane, finds himself out of the frying pan and into the fire. The establishment responds by recruiting recently arrested career criminal Plissken and coercing him into undertaking a suicide mission. The injection of a slow-acting poison into his bloodstream with the promise of the antidote once he delivers the President from harm – and, more importantly, the diplomatic MacGuffin the President alone has a copy of – is all the persuasion he needs.

‘Escape from New York’ flips the middle finger to the system during every minute of its running time, with Carpenter’s biggest “screw you” reserved for the finale in which, having made good on his side of the deal, Plissken scuppers the President’s ploy for a peaceable solution to the foreign problems threatening his administration. America, it is suggested, is in for one motherfucker of a shit-storm thanks to Plissken’s reactionary stunt; but everything that Plissken has gone through up till that moment leaves you in no doubt that the powers that be had it coming.

The sequel, while inferior on many levels and badly let down by embarrassingly shoddy effects work, certainly ups the ante in terms of Plissken’s final act of rebellion. In a film that follows its predecessor’s narrative arc with the slavish fidelity of a join-the-dots puzzle, Plissken strolls off into the end credits having not just fucked up world peace but pretty much sounded the death knoll for the planet’s future. The message is stark and brutal: shut down; start again.

‘Escape from New York’ was, of course, made as the 70s gave out to the 80s, the door just beginning to close on an astounding decade in American cinema where a new breed of directors were kicking down the doors and questioning the system. German cinema, in the last decade, has been demonstrating a similar renaissance, certainly in terms of movies which shine a penetrating and unflinching light on the darker aspects of Germany’s recent social and political history. ‘Downfall’ was the watershed film in this movement: the first German production ever to depict Hitler. What made it more thorny was that it was even-handed in its approach.

Just as thorny – and for the same reason – was Uli Edel’s ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’, which packs an immense amount of politics, ideology and compromised morality into its two and a half hours. The film charts the history of the group from Ulrike Meinhof (Martine Gedeck)’s transition from crusading journalist to activist, through Meinhof, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtrau) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek)’s eventual arrest and trial, to the actions of the second generation members. Here, the focus is on explicitly political motives for revolution, and the sometimes awkward but always compelling combination of Bernd Eichinger’s incisive script and Edel’s bludgeoningly unsubtle direction present a depiction of the bastardization of ideology and the crossing of the line from revolutionary to terrorist.

An artistic/intellectual awakening is the focus of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘The Lives of Others’, in which Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a Stasi surveillance expert, is deployed by his weasly boss Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) – himself a tool of corpulent and eminently corrupt politican Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) – to stake out the home of playwright Georg Draymann (Sebastian Koch), who has come under suspicion because of his association with dissident artist Paul Hauser (Hans Euw-Bauer). The old saying “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” gets a two and a quarter hour exposition in von Donnersmarck’s astoundingly assured directorial debut. Essentially, the film is the story of two awakenings: that of Draymann, who is inspired by Hauser to write a potentially contentious article for publication in the west; and that of Wiesler, whose hitherto blind adherence to the party is challenged by the humanitarian values of the man he’s sent to spy on and a gradual realization of the venality of his superiors’ ulterior motives.

If ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ and ‘The Lives of Others’ represent a strand of cinema rooted in social realism and driven by the political failings of recent history, then themes of rebellion couched in sci-fi tropes recall the golden age of that genre when political protest, social disaffection and an exaggerated extrapolation of contemporary issues cast a shadow over filmmakers’ visions of the future. Examples are myriad both in cinema and literature: H.G. Wells contesting the arrogant complacency of the Victorian era in ‘War of the Worlds’ (a subtext utterly neglected by both Byron Haskins’ and Steven Spielberg’s big screen adaptations); George Orwell contemplating the dark side of the socialist ideal in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ (of which more tomorrow); Evgeny Zamyatin contemplating a similar theme from within the system in ‘We’; Aldous Huxley pinpointing the production-line slavery of Henry T. Ford’s car manufacturing plants as the genesis of human slavery to the industrial impulse in ‘Brave New World’.

Science-fiction, at its best and most cerebral, has held up a mirror to contemporary issues and had the naked courage to accept that the future, whether postulated as utopian or dystopian, presents a worry prospect. A utopian society is depicted in the under-rated ‘Aeon Flux’. There is cleanliness, social order, and protection from an outside world, 99% of which has been destroyed by a viral pandemic. The ruling dynasty are “descended” from the scientist, Dr Goodchild, who developed a cure. And yet the Goodchilds have become a ruling class, their interests protected by a private army and their power built on a secret hidden for centuries. The eponymous Aeon (Charlize Theron) works for an underground movement, the Monicans, who are dedicated to challenging the status quo. The world of ‘Aeon Flux’ recalls that of ‘Logan’s Run’ (one of the films being considered by Francisco at The Film Connoisseur on Wednesday): aesthetically pleasing, peaceful and seemingly affluent, its citizens wanting for nothing … except personal freedom. And yet people disappear. The Goodchilds rule with an iron fist in a velvet glove. The populace are deceived as a matter of course.

The future of Joss Whedon’s ‘Serenity’ – his big-screen farewell to the unjustly cancelled TV series ‘Firefly’ – is in sharp contrast to ‘Aeon Flux’. This is definitely a dystopia. How so? Well, our ostensible hero Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillon) is the leader of a ragtag group of outlaws reduced to robbing payrolls after fighting on the losing side against the Alliance, a patriarchal government who control a ring of inner planets where the younger generation are effectively brainwashed and “operatives” take care of anyone who questions or threatens governmental supremacy. The further flung planets are the province of Reivers, a vicious criminal society who practice their own form of despotism. Mal and his crew become unlikely rebels when they give passage to a psychic, River (Summer Glau), who has questioned the Alliance. As with the Goodchilds’ empire in ‘Aeon Flux’, the Alliance has been founded on a criminal act and a supposedly “better” society is the product of lies, whitewash and propaganda.

Every genre of cinema has had its share of cinematic rebels – I haven’t even touched on, say, the Zappata westerns; and biopics of revolutionaries, successful or not, seems to be a cottage industry in and of itself – and the films I’ve mentioned in this article are but a random sampling. Some of these I’ve already reviewed on the blog; others deserve in-depth stand-alone pieces.

Tomorrow, I’ll be narrowing the remit to a more specific selection of movies: those which consider an English perspective on revolution. In the meantime, don’t forget to head over to The Film Connoisseur - today, Francisco presents an in-depth and socially grounded analysis of the films 'Romero' and 'Salvador'.


The Film Connoisseur said...

Great article Neil, totally agree on the points you mentioned on what makes up a rebel, it is someone who says no. I go into what makes up a rebel tomorrow as well. But it definetly involves saying hell no to an oppressive government stomping the people.

The films you mentioned are great. Its interesting to see how John Carpenter's films have that rebellious angle to them, I always saw Carpenter as a bit of a rebel himself since a few of his films do this. They attack the system, the way things are set.

That idea of shutting down the planet and starting again is a recurrent one in these types of films, I will be touching up on that on day 3 of this collaboration because so many of these films offer the idea of scrapping the status quo and starting with something new. Cant say I blame them, new ideas are certainly needed in the world we live in, in terms of politics, the way we are educated, and the way we live our lives.

You mentioned 1984, a book for which their are two versions. One is the and the other is the one starting John Hurt. I've only seen the one with John Hurt, and boy, that movie brought me to tears, same as the book. The story is so crushing, it makes you want to fight against our lives ever turning like that. Sadly, I've seen a lot of that 1984 style of governing things in my own country.

I've been reading about all sorts of revolutions going on around the world, and one of the countries that is mentioned is England, I wouldnt mind hearing your take on whats going on over there, do you go into that on future articles?

Awesome post man! Loved it, Viva la Revolution in deed!

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Francisco. I'm just about to head over to The Film Connoisseur and check out your article on 'Romero' and 'Salvador'.

I'll be looking rebellion in England tomorrow ... cinematically, at least. We haven't had a proper revolution since the English Civil War 400 years ago. In fact, it strikes me that England is a country more rebelled against than rebelling. And with good reason. We have a shameful and blood-stained history and our aggression, peaking in the Victorian era, against large swathes of the rest of the globe, still manifests in a disturbing degree of nationalism to this day.

The British subjugation of India springs to mind; likewise our historical treatment of the Scots and the Irish. The most significant social unrest I can remember in Britain during my lifetime was in the late 70s - the race riots. I was very young at the time but I still remember TV footage of National Front members marching against ethnic minorities, wearing Nazi regalia and chanting xenophobic phrases. Nowadays, there are protests outside the BBC because British National Party leader Nick Clegg is allowed on a debate programme.

What happened in the 70s wasn't revolution. It wasn't a cry against something that was wrong. It was pure racism. It showed up an ugly side of Britain.

Although here in the UK we probably have as much theoretical freedom as any country in the world, it can still be a depressing place to live. The Blair government effectively dismantled a lot of personal liberties whilsts kowtowing to the Bush administration. The "us and them" mindset that a lot of my countrymen have (particularly in regards to the class divide) doesn't manifest itself into anything purposeful. There seems to be no focus on effecting any degree of positive change.

I'll be looking at some of this in greater detail tomorrow, particulary in respect of '1984' - and, yes, it is the John Hurt version I'll be talking about. It's a film I find almost gruelling to watch, but like Orwell's novel it's a powerful reminder of what we stand to lose ... and what we've have, imperceptibly but incrementally, already started to lose.

Here's to the next two days of our revolution!

Samuel Wilson said...

Excellently interesting, Neil. I noticed, though, that you almost immediately changed the subject from "revolution" to "rebellion." Given what you wrote, I think you were right to do this. I agree with you that the rebel is the person who says No. The revolutionary is a somewhat different creature because there's usually a Yes in his agenda; he's interested in replacing one system with another, and that usually leads to the rebels in his camp turning against him. There's no simple good guy/bad guy opposition between the two, but the tension between the two impulses is something you've probably noticed in movies and life alike. Looking forward to more.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Interesting Neil, I've also read that many student protesters went out onto the streets and where met by a police force in London, on Trafalgar Square.

Do you know the reasons why they are protesting? Tey are protesting for the same reasons why students all across the world are protesting, prices are going up in education and this effectively shuts down any chance for middle class or poor to get educated.

I tell ya man, this plan is truly evil.

Neil Fulwood said...

Sam – you’ve got me bang to rights. I quite simply got wrapped up in the “why people rebel” aspect of the article, which was intended as a jumping off point from which to discuss revolutionaries on film. Whilst planning these articles, I knew that I wanted to start with some comments on the motivations towards rebellion. I guess Camus’s famous quote burrowed deeper into my mind than I’d anticipated and “some comments” became the entire article!

Still, this is only the first of the three posts. I’ve just posted day two’s piece – entitled “A very English revolution” and I hope you’ll find that I’ve dealt more specifically with the subject matter. Look forward to your comments on this and the concluding article.

Franco – yeah, the students in London were protesting over exactly the same thing as the students in Puerto Rico. Except they weren’t met by anything as oppressive as militia with submachine guns. Having said that, our police force can be notably heavy-handed when they want to. Unfortunately, much of the destruction of property that took place (office and shop windows staved in, etc) had less to do with an antagonistic clash between students and police than with the presence of a non-student “yob” element in the crowd. Still, it’s criminal that our respective governments are trying to subvert the ideal of a fair and equal chance at education for everyone and simply load the dice in favour of students from moneyed backgrounds.

Bryce Wilson said...

Superlative Piece Neil. So good that I almost feel like a pedantic fanboy ass for having to mention that the "slow acting poison" was in LA, in NY he has explosives placed in his neck.

Neil Fulwood said...

I will write out 500 times "explosives in the good one, poison in the disappointing one".

That'll teach me!

(Glad you enjoyed the article, btw.)