Wednesday, January 05, 2011

VIVA LA REVOLUTION! Day 3: The price of revolution

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

In this final day of “Viva la Revolution”, I’ll be casting an eye over films in which the revolutionary goes up against an oppressive government/state/system/establishment (delete as applicable) to their cost. Where the system defeats the individual, either by breaking their will or killing them outright. This will essentially be the flipside to Franco’s article over at The Film Connoisseur celebrating those films in which the revolutionary achieves his ends.

But this is not necessarily an article about failed revolutions, victory for the oppressor and the destruction of the individual. Sometimes a murder creates a martyr. Others are thus inspired by the resilience of someone who stands firm in their beliefs so passionately and intractably that even the very real possibility of their own death does not deter them.

Then there is the plight of ostensibly very ordinary people (such as the working class George Nada in ‘They Live’, discussed in my first “Viva la Revolution” piece) who, although they might be apolitical, are thrust into situations by the random upheavals of chance or circumstances and find themselves taking action. In direct contrast to the physically imposing and wisecracking Nada, but just as randomly catapulted into a string of life-changing events, is Sam Lowry (Malcolm Pryce), the decidedly ordinary protagonist of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’.

Offbeat, visually arresting, quirky, sometimes funny and often coruscatingly angry, ‘Brazil’ is a film that could only have been made by Gilliam. Partly a riff on ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and partly a howl of frustration against the pettiness bureaucracies of British government, the film starts with a dead fly dropping into a teleprinter and the resulting typo setting off a chain of escalating events as various civil servants either try to cover up the resulting administrative error, or take it as evidence of dirty work and terrorist subversion within the government. When the innocent Jill Layton (Kim Griest) is implicated, Lowry – finding himself drawn to her – tries to save her from the clutches of the Ministry of Information’s counter-terrorist wing, the blandly yet somehow sinisterly named Information Retrieval department.

Lowry undergoes an awakening of his revolutionary spirit as understated as that of Winston Smith in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’: he simply comes to his own realization that the government is wrong, that his colleagues are either bullies or buffoons and that human life has a value beyond mere paperwork. The full corrosiveness of Gilliam’s vision is reserved for the final scene, in which Lowry – arrested, accused, cautioned, questioned and finally faced with excruciating torture courtesy of a man he considered his friend – simply shuts down emotionally and intellectually, retreating into himself; his mind projecting an ideal of the life he was striving towards. “He’s gone away from us,” the head of the Ministry muses.

‘Brazil’ makes no bones about the capacity of the system to crush the individual – either with jackboot, paperwork or both – but the poignant ending is a reminder that even a man reduced to a state of catatonia may be argued to have wrought a pyrrhic victory if something remains within him that clings to the beliefs that drove him.

Sidney Lumet’s ‘Network’ depicts the system (in this case a TV network) first exploiting then defending itself against a one-man revolution staged by news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a man whose revolutionary principles – here a commitment to the truth behind the news stories – lead to his assassination, albeit by an unexpected antagonist. When Beale is pensioned off after falling ratings, he uses his final broadcast to announce that he intends to kill himself. Viewing figures soar. Ambitious producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) persuades venal corporate honcho Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to oversee Beale’s new show – in which he rants and raves like a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher – much to the chagrin of his previous producer and close friend Max Schumacher (William Holden).

In the film’s most famous scene, a dishevelled and manic Beale exhorts his viewers to get angry about the state of the country; to go to their windows, open them and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Beale taps into the frustrations of his audience simply by calling it like he sees it and deriding as “bullshit” anything that smacks of falsity, commercialization or corporatism.

His show earns the network an impressive share of the market, enough that Diana is able to push through her pet project, ‘The Mao Tse Tung Hour’ – a documentary series about revolutionaries. In a chillingly funny scene, Diana and a phalanx of her corporate cronies sit around with armed members of the terrorist group about whom they have agreed to make the series; these bastions of anti-capitalism end up arguing as vehemently as any agent or lawyer about residuals and profit shares.

Things take a downturn when Beale makes comments potentially harmful to a deal between the network and Saudi Arabian investors. Network president Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) browbeats Beale into towing the company line. Traumatized, Beale’s broadcasts lose their messianic intensity; a sense of defeatism creeps in. His audience loses interest. Viewing figures plummet. Jensen, blind to the financial repercussions and loss of face in the industry augured by an unpopular show, insists that Beale – now dancing to his tune – remain on TV. Hackett and Diana rope the terrorist faction into a scheme to get Beale off the air. Permanently.

‘Network’ is a fascinating entry in the canon of revolutionary films as (a) it depicts an agitator on the cusp becoming a bona fide revolutionary (the “mad as hell” scene implies that Beale is building a following); and (b) shows an initially complacent system (the network exercise no censorship over Beale just as long as his controversial monologues are analogous to high ratings) suddenly becoming ruthless when he presents an actual threaten (a potentially scuppered deal; loss of viewing figures). That the revolutionary group are corralled by corporate executives into assassinating Beale provides a suitably stark and darkly satirical sting in the tale.

In a perceptive comment on my first post in this series, Samuel Wilson of the excellent Mondo 70 stated: “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.”

I’ve probably moved away slightly from the original remit of “Viva la Revolution” in some of my choices, being drawn to rebels as much as revolutionaries. Whereas Franco at The Film Connoisseur has focused many of his choices on films drawn from actual events, I guess what captures my imagination is that initial impulse to stand up against a system or establishment. How that impulses manifests, and how far the individual carries forward a message, campaign or organized display of insurgency, arguably provides another dividing line between the rebel and the revolutionary. Howard Beale – committing in one of his broadcasts the cardinal sin of urging a TV audience to switch off and think for themselves – is on the verge of leading a revolution. Not one of bloodshed, but of freedom of thought and rejection of an industry – television – which too many people (executives, advertisers) have too much money invested in to allow to be challenged.

D-Fens (Michael Douglas) – the anonymous former defence worker (the nomenclature derives from his personalized licence plate) whose one-day rampage through the culturally and economically depleted landscape of contemporary urban America is chronicled in Joel Schumacher’s ‘Falling Down’ – dies without attracting any followers. Except perhaps the audience. Schumacher’s achievement, even though it contributes to a tonally uneven movie overall, is to yolk a serious point about mental instability and the fragility of the individual’s breaking point to a wish-fulfilment narrative where D-Fens’s every outburst (be it verbal or machine gun fire) is guaranteed to raise a cheer from anyone who’s ever been downsized, ripped off, treated contemptuously or stuck in gridlock for hours on end.

Whether trashing a corner shop for overcharging on a can of soda, raging at a fast food franchise employee for serving him a burger that looks nothing like the product on the adverts, punching an obnoxious road user into unconsciousness, protesting against needless roadworks by simply blowing the obstruction up, or going hell for leather at a couple of rich dudes on a golf course, D-Fens does and says what most of us have wanted to do or say at one point, but hold back on due to the very real likelihood of arrest, lawsuits or custody. Of course, D-Fens dies in the end (much in the manner of, say, a gangster in a 1940s Warner Brothers movie having to pay for his sins mortally, never mind how appealing he might have been to the audience) but not before he asks uncomprehendingly, “I’m the bad guy?” It’s a question he’s asking on behalf of the audience.

The difference between D-Fens and any number of big screen vigilantes is that in a world inhabited by his audience, D-Fens would have followers. In fact, it’s not too great a leap from D-Fens to Tyler Durden in David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’. Whereas D-Fens’s micro-revolution is immediate and on the streets, Tyler’s starts underground. Quite literally. In the cellar of a seedy bar where he starts up a bare-knuckle boxing club which soon attracts a following of disenfranchised twenty-something males from various walks of life. Fight Club provides a cathartic release for their frustrations. It also taps into an anarchistic part of their psyche and soon things move out of the cellar. Tyler instigates Project Mayhem: a campaign of pranks (the destruction of corporate artwork), sabotage (franchise properties are vandalised or bombed) and finally outright terrorism (a plot to destabilize the economy).

‘Fight Club’ is arguably American cinema’s equivalent of ‘If…’. Like Lindsay Anderson’s film, it ends as the revolution begins. Gunfire fills the soundtrack in the last scene of ‘If…’, the explosion as a tower block is destroyed in ‘Fight Club’, a disturbingly prescient image given the 9/11 attacks that happened two years after Fincher’s film was made. The only difference is that Travis in ‘If…’ remains resolute right till the end, whereas the anti-hero of ‘Fight Club’ bears helpless witness to the bombing having faced up to an ostensibly defeated his more militant and extremist alter ego. There are many levels on which this last scene can be read, not least as a punchline that treats the film entire as a gallows-humour joke. But there is also a small strand of ‘Animal Farm’-style satire going on, the original remit of Fight Club spiralling into the darker territory of Project Mayhem (not unlike the gradual bastardization of the animals’ Seven Commandments under Napoleon’s hard-line regime). Whereas the revolutionaries in the other films I’ve looked at today are crushed by the system, ‘Fight Club’ depicts the revolution as something of a Frankenstein’s monster, its creator bringing into being something he ultimately cannot control.

I’ve only looked at a small selection of films in this piece. There are a wealth of movies about real-life revolutionaries which pull no punches in depicting their eventual fate: Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) gunned down by an Anti-Treaty Republic in Neil Jordan’s eponymous biopic; William Wallace (Mel Gibson) tortured and executed by his British captors in ‘Braveheart’; Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando) lured into an ambush in Elia Kazan’s ‘Viva Zapata!’; Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery) similarly despatched in Jack Conway’s ‘Viva Villa!’

With Franco concentrating on socially-grounded depictions of revolution in cinema, I have chosen to focus primarily on fictional revolutionaries during the three days of “Viva la Revolution”. There are still many films out there with a fighting spirit and a revolutionary message. I’ll be making a point of looking at more of them – and some of those I’ve already mentioned, but in greater depth – during the course of the year.

The revolution continues!


Samuel Wilson said...

Neil, I've always found Howard Beale a problematic archetype. The problem is that people in America often treat him as a role model. Many of the reactionary populists in the Tea Party movement have adopted, "I'm as mad as hell..." as a slogan without seeming to realize that they're the words of a man who is clearly mentally ill. I doubt whether Chayesfsky or Lumet had any illusions about Beale's revolutionary potential; the mass reaction to his broadcast seems more prophetic of viral video now than anything else. Finch and Holden's characters may represent incomplete parts of a whole that might have rebelled more effectively but the film's overwhelming cynicism makes Network one of cinema's bleakest satires.

The series has been great so far. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comment, Sam.

For me, what makes 'Network' so effective is that it counterpoints Beale's deranged messianic fervour with the more purposeful actions of the terrorist group Diana Christensen is trying to recruit for her series (and isn't her concept for 'The Mao Tse Tung Hour' as prescient of today's obsession with reality TV as Beale's popularity is of viral phenomena?). Ultimately, the terrorists embrace the corporate/financial aspect of the show, mainly because they're savvy enough to know that Diana has to get what she wants (ratings) in order for them to get what they want (a platform to disseminate their ideals).

It's also a scathing irony that Beale's most ardent followers are exactly the kind of TV-addicted herd-instinct non-thinkers he's fulminating against in the first place.

It worries me that some of your countrymen would consider him a role model. I love the film, but I've never seen Beale as a hero; not even a tragic hero. He's more akin to the "Fool" in a Jacobean play - he's allowed the occasional moment of lucid insight, but he's unbalanced for all that.

TheRealGilliamFan said...

I really like your take on the Brazil ending. I think most people either overlook that line -- "He’s gone away from us" -- or take it to mean Sam has actually been lobotomized. Though he sure doesn't look it. And in numerous interviews, I've heard Gilliam call it a [pseudo] "happy ending" of sorts, for Lowry, because he is able to escape (in his mind) and live out this fantasy life in his mind. If you want to talk about rip offs: Repo Men. Seen it? :D

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for your comment. That one line is so crucial to the ending; it's Lowry's final act of rebellion. If not a literal escape, then still an escape into the mind.

I've not seen 'Repo Men' - the avalanche of bad reviews that greeted it put me off - but I'm guessing it plunders wholesale from 'Brazil'.

Adrian Mendizabal said...

Great essay! I love this viva la revolution series! keepp up the good work!

The Film Connoisseur said...

Sorry I took so long in replying to this post Neil, its just that holidays really took a toll on me, its been non stop partying for the past four weeks, the holidays last a little longer in my country.

But I just got a chance to read your third article and I loved it, you covered three of my favorite rebel minded films.

In response to Sam Wilsons reply, where he states that he is worried that people see Beale as a role model because he is essentially a mentally ill person, I'd like to say that this much is true, Beale was an unstable looney character.

But take this in consideration Sam, filmmakers often times make the hero of the film into a looney because when the grand majority thinks one way, and you are a minority who thinks differently, then you can bet your ass you will be seen as the crazy guy. The crazy conspiracy nut guy.

If you notice, the same can be said for D-Fense, and Jack from Fight Club, they were all mentally unstable characters. The interesting thing about these characters is that the filmmakers get their message sent through the film none the less. They tell their truths through these characters even if they are crazy.

I guess by depicting these rebels as looneys the writers and filmmakers cant be accused of being subversive because their main characters were mentally ill in the first place. Still, anyone who sees these films can see that the true purpose of the film is to criticize society and all its evils.

Doesnt matter if Jack 'kills' Tyler Durden in the end of the film, or if Beale and D-Fense died at the end of their respective rebellions, their points were made and the filmmakers message is burned into our psyche.

Though interestingly enough, most of these films warn the viewer what can happen when you rebel, for instance, that moment in Falling Down when D-fense sees a black man dressed exactly like him hollering in the streets about not being "economically viable" and then a police car comes and takes him away. That scene was a warning to D-fense and to the audience, of what can happen to you when you rebel.

Great article Neil! Glad to have collaborated with you!