Feb 25, 2013



Film as a Subversive Art at the Spectacle
Dan Erdman
(Image taken from the Spectacle's page for the series)

The Spectacle Theater
Brooklyn's Spectacle Theater, an all-video-projection, 25-seat microcinema, has been running an ongoing series based on Amos Vogel's book Film as a Subversive Art since the beginning of the year. Each month of screenings encompasses a different chapter of Vogel's book; in February, the programmers are concentrating on films from the "International Left and Revolutionary Cinema" section. This was the first such showing that I was able to attend - I had only became aware of the series in the first place a few days previously - so I'm not sure which or how many of the other films featured in the chapter were shown in earlier weeks. On February 20, two films from Latin America, The Hour of the Blast Furnaces (Fernando Angolans, Argentina, 1967) and The First Charge of the Machete (Manuel Octavio Gomez, Cuba, 1969) were projected (each from a digital copy of uncertain provenance and not terribly outstanding quality).
The Hour of the Blast Furnaces is a plotless, four-and-a-half-hour-long exercise in agitational montage, with a topical focus, unsurprisingly, on the struggle for Latin American nations to achieve economic, social and cultural independence in the shadow of the United States. The First Charge of the Machete, meanwhile, is a more conventional narrative historical drama, re-enacting a pivotal military victory of the native Cuban rebels against their Spanish colonial overlords in the nineteenth century. Shot faux-documentary style (complete with sit-down "interviews" with historical personages), the film suggests that the then-new Cuban communist government had roots in earlier conflicts against other global superpowers.
The screening was co-sponsored by The New Inquiry, a journal which describes itself as "a space for discussion that aspires to enrich cultural and public life by putting all available resources - both digital and material - toward the promotion and exploration of ideas."1 (The relevant entry on Wikipedia helpfully states that "The magazine has been deemed to be elitist by some, but not others."2) Though I am not intimately familiar with this publication, perusing what contents are available online definitely give the impression is at the very least in broad sympathy with the political left, although it seems to be affiliated with no particular party, clique or tendency.
The event was hosted by that publication's film editor, Willie Osterweil (an "unannounced compañero" was also advertised for the event in addition to Osterweil, but no such person appeared at my screening, which was the later of two to occur that evening). Only brief, non-contiguous excerpts from The Hour of the Blast Furnaces were to be shown, followed by the whole of The First Charge of the Machete; Osterweil guided the audience through the scenes from Solanas's movie, offering some context for the work (which, according to him, inspired riots when shown in Argentina) and explaining some of the movie's more arcane historical references. He also offered some personal reminiscences related to The Hour of the Blast Furnaces; having first encountered it in an undergraduate film course, he claimed to have breathlessly exhorted his classmates during the subsequent discussion period to leave campus, lay waste to the downtown and begin the revolution right there. This memory of youthful intemperance amused the audience as well as the host, who professed a light embarrassment over the matter. He also added, in an aside, that little of the political content of The Hour of the Blast Furnaces remained as convincing to him as it once had been, though he declined to elaborate further.
The remarks for The Hour of the Blast Furnaces were reasonably brief and light, devoted mostly to stage-setting and pointing out certain stylistic features. Likewise with The First Charge of the Machete - Osterweil provided some background on the real-life historical events on which the movie was based and removed himself to the back row of the theater when it began. Although a post-film discussion had been advertised, this did not occur. Probably this had something to do with the fact that, by time the last movie finished, it was midnight, and the audience, aside from Osterweil and a ticket-taker, consisted of six people (which, admittedly, is enough to fill up a quarter of the Spectacle's seats).
Vogel's main argument in the chapter on "International Left and Revolutionary Cinema" is that truly politically engaged films exist in order to directly inspire the spectator to immediate political action, rather than as a means of merely representing an issue or conflict. In this view, film is "a tool to change the world, no longer an 'art object' existing 'parallel to the world. This supreme attempt at subversion - film as act rather than creation - represents a desperate attempt to bridge the gap between life and art."3
There is an irony, then, which was left unexplored in the screening. As Vogel probably realized in the years before his death in 2012, both film and the type of new left politics favored by his selections are almost completely obsolete as a means of producing anything new.
While various social and political currents make use of media technologies, film certainly isn't one of them; one is as likely to find someone wielding a stone tablet and stylus as a Bolex H16. Reading Vogel less literally, cinema, conceived of as a feature-length, theatrically-screened finished work, hardly fares any better as a means of political motivation than does its original medium. Moving image technology in general is of service to political groups more as a means of documentation and communication than as agitation. The notion of a movie winding its audience up to a riot after the fashion of The Hour of the Blast Furnaces seems quaint.
In addition, the type of new-left politics espoused by the two movies screened have barely any more life in them than does film. The films' critiques are nearly half a century old, taking aim at a world which no longer exists in the same form. In 2013, the only internationalist movement violently agitating for total political transformation is run by religious fanatics instead of materialists; even recent revolts in the Middle East were largely the product of demands for reform of crooked and sclerotic governments rather than attempts to establish working-class dictatorship. Occupy Wall Street withered on the vine; its most notable accomplishment was to have solidified a mood of general populist resentment which was then successfully co-opted by a presidential re-election campaign. This has come about due to a variety of factors and may not necessarily be a permanent state of affairs, but the general left-wing perspective cannot find the same type of purchase that it did in 1968.
The way in which the films have dated made this acutely apparent to me and, I suspect, to the rest of the audience as well. The Hour of the Blast Furnaces provoked laughter from the small crowd with its didacticism, which even back in 1967 showed the first signs of curdling into theatrical ultra-leftism - one title card, presumably meant to be read without irony, reads "All cultural expression is now controlled by the CIA" (The small crowd took a mildly condescending attitude toward the films, chuckling indulgently at the hokier parts but generally giving them respectful attention). In particular, its unsubtle criticism of popular culture as top-down western cultural imperialism has aged particularly poorly in light of the way in which the study of that field has advanced in the intervening five decades. Vogel himself even had his doubts: "The very sophistication of its structure and narration...precludes its use with the masses and stamps it as a work for intellectuals, students, and the already convinced. To others, its facts resemble allegation, its revolutionary purity dogmatism and its transformation of images into polemic through editing, demagogic distortion."4
The other film, meanwhile, actually felt remarkably current. Given slightly better production values, The First Charge of the Machete could stand a chance at popular success in the 21st century. The faux documentary-style tropes could fit into an episode of The Office without disturbing any viewer's good time, let alone his political prejudices. Furthermore, the decades in between Star Wars and Avatar have aptly demonstrated that the story of a plucky band of rebels taking the fight to an on-paper-superior military force has commercial legs. That being the case, however, it only proves that the film now fails on its own terms, or at least on Vogel's. "The portrayals of decadent upper classes and heroic peasants are sharp and incisive, and distancing devices - such as characters addressing the camera - are used to induce attitudes of analysis instead of involvement."5 What was radical in form and content in 1969 is the stuff of the most mainstream possible popular entertainments of the early 21st century.
All of this might have been worth commenting on in some way. Nothing of this sort was brought up in Osterweil's comments, nor was I able to detect any sort of perspective in the pairing of the two movies. The organizers seem to have ceded curatorial authority to Vogel, respectfully declining to ask any questions about his selections or justifications for including the two films in his canon.
Given the contentious, polemical character of the book (and author) which is supposed to have inspired this series, this lack of framing on the part of the programmers strikes me as the wrong approach. Film as a Subversive Art is nearly 40 years old and, while indisputably a valuable contribution to cinema scholarship, it is hardly beyond criticism, or at least comment. The great strength of the book - the wide net of "subversion" as a descriptor catches an astonishing breadth of films, making for intriguing juxtapositions - is also something of dead end. If everything is subversive, is anything?
It is possible that lack on comment on Vogel's choices could be read as simple affirmation; the same might be said for the politics of the films, irrelevant though they may be (despite Osterweil's demurral). What is more likely at play is a nostalgia for the period Vogel was writing and working, when films such as these had far more aesthetic and political currency than they do now. Given the venue - a charmingly shabby, DIY microcinema devoted to all manner of moving image esoterica - this seems like the most likely alternative. It is a shame that more effort was not made to replicate the spirit of the original curatorial project it's paying tribute to, rather than imitation.
All of that said, it was nice to have access to these films under any circumstances. I checked Vogel's book out from the University of Wisconsin's Memorial Library (where it was kept in the mysterious Locked Case, behind the front desk and out of the hands of casual browsers) as a freshman in 1994 and pledged to see every single film listed therein. 20 years on I must admit that I've done a spectacularly terrible job and so welcome any assistance offered to me. Most readers of Film as a Subversive Art (particularly the ones who spent most of their lives outside of New York) have only experienced the featured films as 200-word blurbs, and thus not been able to engage fully with Vogel's text. Each film that is added to the "have-seen" pile opens up the book that much more, so I suppose there is a value to simply introducing them and letting the viewer make of them what he will.
1"About", The New Inquiry, thenewinquiry.com/about/
2"The New Inquiry", Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Inquiry
3Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, Random House, New York, 1974, 120
4Vogel, 164
5Vogel, 163

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