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'.