Politics and Films for Beginners

Gimme Shelter (above) Godard and Others With a little Introduction

The four years since the. Class of 1971 matriculated have been pivotal for filmmaking and film criticism.

The basic changes in accepted American channels of production are obvious: the failure of the film studios even as managerial or financial systems made the option of sale to large conglomerates irresistible. United Artists went to Transamerica, Warner-Seven Arts to Kinney Services, "Nixon-Paramount" to Gulf and Western.

And this crisis of an old order affected the product enormously. Puritan scruples lost out to Puritan money, with lots of nipples and buttocks and, by 1970, pubic hair incorporated into vile and violent attempts to recapture brutalized audiences.

At least the new, desperate openness of the film companies did allow, for a time, the chance for an art of depth to be developed, and more realistic milieus to be delineated. The Graduate or Easy Rider might have been pretty terrible movies, but their audiences were presented with types they recognized from their own experience.

And the recently ended "new era" did bring forth films which realized the promises of unmuzzled creative vision. The films of Arthur Penn. Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick honestly reflected surrounding chaos. Even if The Wild Bunch, 2001 or Little Big Man finally emphasized-through the criticism of portrayed societies-viable standards of intelligence and honor by which man could construct a sane world, they were at base level iconoclastic, determined to shatter set cultural conventions and destroy them utterly.


Films like these are rare, however. And since film companies have continued to turn a blind eye to talent and have backed hacks who lose their money, they will be even rarer in the future. Lasting change in film has, in these past years, come mainly from those individual foreign filmmakers working in radical political or aesthetic isolation.

What European and Third World filmmakers have begun is a re-questioning of the film medium itself, caused by world conditions which U.S. directors have seldom alluded to, and then in oblique fashion.

To Western audiences, the most accessible filmmaker to recognize contradictions between his themes, and his style and method is Ingmar Bergman. Although the contradictions he recognized were not political-as were those of the self-proclaimed revolutionaries-the problems he encountered illustrate an archetypal confrontation between a "self-contained" artist and social turmoil he could not avoid.

Persona arrived in 1967, Godard was first wavering in his arrogant use of collage, and the Cinema Novo movement, meant to create new expressions for emerging cultures, was largely unknown. Bergman started questioning a career based on the expression of personal psychological torments. His previous themes were tied to a consideration of man as an individual, his damning separateness. Bergman new asked: Does aesthetic tradition justify a director who uses the screen to produce a dream world and imposes his will on actors and audiences? Or does the director merely create barriers between the audience and screen characters by his personal literary superstructures? Persona was an attempt to return the director to confrontation with his subject matter, eschewing the artiness that film-the "all-purpose medium"-invites. To Bergman. this meant aiming for a goal only now fully understood: to make a film based on the human face.

In an oft-quoted sentiment, Bergman stated that he wished to work unknown, for a common ideal, as did the artisans of the cathedral at Chartres. In Persona he is faced by the self-defeat of such a hope in a world swayed by countervailing tensions each of which claims ascendance and leaves little solace or purpose to the individual. Bergman's actress-heroine is not able to portray the theatrical tragedy of Electra while horrifying war is waged in a country far distant from neutralist Sweden. Alma turns on her TV set, and the immolation of a Buddhist monk produces her own agony.

The burden for Bergman is doubled by his need to communicate the meaning of Alma's pain. Upheaval and repression sometimes go unquestioned because of the rhetorical baggage that goes with them. Bergman's way of exposing the content of human conflict is anti-ideological, but his moral anger bears latent political meaning. He reduces a state of warfare to the level of personal violence, where it can be explored in detail, and views it as the last measure to which frustrated people resort when their associations are blocked for the sake of someone's self-gratification.

As a filmmaker, Bergman humbled himself before his characters, splitting his screen and letting its images dissolve into confused fragments whenever the emotional tensions became unbearably loaded on behalf of a single individual. At film's end, ragged bits of leader flickered past the projected lamp. Bergman, at this point, can only hope to approach an image of his characters at various moments of their lives. To be honest, he must develop frameworks which not only reveal his thematic material, but-through the visible organization of his film and filmmaking-reveal how he applies it to his own life.

Hour of the Wolf, his next film, seemed a throwback, a last effort to exorcise personal demons in a traditional story film. But the subsequent Shame is a vision completely externalized. The film begins in darkness; an alarm clock rings, bedroom shades are thrown open, and until the portrayed artist and his wife finally set adrift in a sea of war dead, the audience is enveloped in a dream objectified by the directness of Bergman's artistry. One recognizes the degree of control the filmmaker has exercised because his film is so concentrated, so perfectly removed from the real world where we don't hear sounds or see objects in such isolated patterns. But one also sees that the film is open to anyone's experience: levels of meaning are built by the filmed events, not merely suggested by torturous internal symbolism.

The film knows what to make of itself: Its last scrap of dialogue describes a napalmed rose bush burning-a vision too beautiful to be saddening and a devastating slap at an audience new exhilarated by Bergman's art. Bergman wanted to go still further and remove the audience from its passive acceptance of screen images. In last spring's The Passion of Anna, the audience is forced to appreciate and analyze the elements of dramatic characterization: each of the participating actors freely explains his own conceptions of his work at breaks in the narrative. The story itself is constructed in time so that one immediately recognizes that Bergman's argument develops out of whole lives. Most heartening of all is the film's positive philosophic viewpoint: through the new relationships Bergman built with his actors, he was able to urge in their drama that men should not take the seeming incomprehensibility of social events as an excuse for inaction and that the innate loneliness of each individual should not prevent or poison love.

BERGMAN'S remarkable conversion has been one of many. In the same four-year period, artists responding similarly to an overheated social atmosphere have tried to develop a new clarity of expression, so that they could be totally conscious of their work's effect, and the screen could be "demystified." These who could not afford Bergman's moral imperatives moved to a political analysis of film's purpose as a commodity. The combination of ideological certainty with artistic virtuosity that Godard has inspired in many filmmakers, has produced considerable tension: young Bernardo Bertolucci, director of The Conformist , underwent psychiatric treatment because of his split with his mentor: his new film deals entirely with the bourgeoisie, and on their own terms.