December 11-17, 2003
History in the Making
Peter Watkins' revolutionary films fuse the past and the future with the right-now.
I very much disagree with the traditional concept within the Western media of "responsibility to the audience by being objective" -- this implies that one’s responsibility lies in the art of entirely divorcing oneself from one’s feelings -- which is as dishonest as it is impossible. --Peter Watkins, from "Edvard Munch: A Director’s Statement," 1976.
The observation that every fiction film is a documentary on some level, an empirical record of human behavior, has been commonplace for decades, but Peter Watkins may be the only filmmaker to make that insight the center of his body of work. Watkins began his professional career as a director for the BBC, and his films often employ the devices of 1960s broadcast journalism: man-on-the-street interviews, information-bestowing narrators, jagged hand-held camera work. But of the half-dozen films in International House’s Watkins series, the ones that look the most like traditional documentaries are those depicting events that never happened, or could not have been filmed. But if cameras had been present in Paris in 1871, they might have captured something like Watkins’ six-hour La Commune; rather than re-creating the events of that short-lived socialist revolution, Watkins reanimated its spirit, corralling 200 untrained actors in a warehouse and encouraging them to debate the same issues the Communards must have faced.
Watkins rarely uses professional actors, casting individuals who resemble the characters they play and encouraging them to forget the difference. As the heat of an argument builds, we bear witness to an ideological Big Bang, seeing thoughts in the instant of their creation. Conventional distinctions between fiction and documentary hardly apply, and there's no question that Watkins sees the divide as a false one, perpetrated by the mass media with whom he enjoys a mutually antagonistic relationship (if being ignored can be considered antagonistic). That only one of the films in the series, the relatively conventional Edvard Munch (1976), has ever received any kind of commercial distribution says much more about the system's limitations than Watkins' own.
The War Game (1965), screening Saturday, was Watkins' second professional film, and almost ended his career before it started. Culloden (1964), which treated an 18th-century battle like a contemporary news event, won acclaim from critics and historians, but Watkins' "documentary" on the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain was promptly disappeared; the BBC refused to air it or allow a theatrical release, and even critics who conceded its brilliance opined that it was too "dangerous" to show to the public. The BBC relented, but Watkins resigned, beginning a long journey in the commercial wilderness. (Whether due to adventurousness or confusion, the film received the 1967 Oscar for best documentary feature.)
Burned by the reaction to The War Game, Watkins moved away from historical singularities and into the realm of allegory. Privilege (1967), screening Friday, tips the balance too far, with its near-future portrait of a Britain in thrall to the Establishment-controlled pop star Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), whose symbol adorns TV stations, supermarkets, even a line of "dream palaces" that sell Steven-endorsed products. Though Watkins draws blood with incidental characterizations -- a commercial director who proclaims his Moscow Art Theater background, a group of tonsured moptops who whip up a Church-approved version of "Onward Christian Soldiers" -- its generic depiction of the machinery of pop translates into a portrait of the audience as easily gulled fools. There's nothing in the movie to contradict one of Steven's handles when he describes his fans as "stunted little creatures with primitive emotions." (To be fair, Watkins has expressed regret over not making Steven's audience more active in the final reel.)
With Punishment Park (1971), aptly double-billed with The War Game, Watkins turned the depiction of mass psychology over to the masses. Watkins supplied the central conceit, a presidential act that gives American dissidents, convicted by ad hoc tribunals, the choice of a lengthy prison sentence or a sadistic training exercise where they're cannon fodder for rookie police and national guardsmen. The rest was left up to the actors, '60s radicals who effortlessly slip into the "kill the pigs" rhetoric of the time, and their Silent Majority counterparts, who needed little encouragement to show their disgust and contempt.
With handcuffed defendants dragged screaming from the room, the tribunal's sessions bear an obvious resemblance to the Chicago Seven trial, and it's not hard to pick out analogues for Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg. But for a film that initially reads like a political tract, Punishment Park proves surprisingly difficult to pin down. Its caricature of bloodthirsty law enforcement outraged contemporary critics, but when the camera swoops in on a soldier who's just shot two unarmed civilians, his hurt and confusion is palpable, recalling the sunken-eyed countenances of Vietnam veterans. And with their blithe talk of bombings and armed revolt, the most militant defendants all but justify their own incarceration, if not the disproportionate punishment awaiting them.
It's possible to find Watkins in the person of the poet who says his poetry "isn't committed to the revolution; it's committed to sanity," no less than in the off-camera documentary director he "plays" in the film. But it's not the characters that engage Watkins: It's the debate between them. The word "provocative," often invoked for the most tepid rebuke to conventional wisdom, applies fully here. The viewer is practically encouraged to overreact, the better to question his or her own response. You end up arguing with yourself.
Its unscripted interactions eat away at Punishment Park's fictional origins, so much so that when two actors playing guards were provoked into "firing" on rock-throwing prisoners, Watkins was briefly convinced that they'd really been shot. (His anguished response is still on the soundtrack.) But it's merely an appetizer for the way the actors in Watkins' massive La Commune devour the distinctions between their historical characters and their present-day concerns. The nearly six-hour film, shown Sunday afternoon, made in 1999 for French television, recovers an underexamined period of Parisian history, when the interstice between Napoleonic empire and centralized Republicanism briefly opened the door to utopian socialism.
With Napoleon III vanquished by Bismarck and the Versailles government finding its feet, the Communards seized the moment to proclaim their independence, effectively seceding from France and founding their own socialist city-state. Versailles sent troops to quash the revolt, but the first wave was won over by the women of Montmartre, and quickly became the Communards' first line of defense. Still, Versailles was not to be defied, and since the movie opens with the mention of the "bloody week" when the rebellion was brutally put down, you know the story won't end well. But as one Communard says before she's shot in the street, the mere fact of its existence, however brief, is legacy enough.
La Commune's story is interpreted as it is written, by intertitles that provide historical context and making-of details (including the names of organizations that refused to fund the production), and by dueling reporters from Versailles and Commune TV, whose deliberately anachronistic presence dramatizes the critical role of the press in the Commune's development, and furthers Watkins' habitual (and mostly unvaried) critique of mass media. The most interesting interpretations, though, come from the participants themselves, who are encouraged to discuss the film's potential for inciting meaningful change. In the most thrilling sequences, clustered near the beginning of the second half, actors slip imperceptibly, almost unconsciously, from past to present and back: Abandoned artisans ask after their errant master, then muse how nowadays, it's hard to even know who you work for. It may sound frightfully self-conscious, but there are moments where Watkins' "living history" threatens to leap from the screen. As in Punishment Park, the discussion in La Commune tends to be dominated by those who talk the loudest, which leads to a surfeit of rhetoric and a dearth of reflection. But you can't imagine another film providing such a sense that issues of social organization, economic justice, gender equality and individual freedom are being worked out for real, not for show.
In some respects the odd man out among Watkins' films, Edvard Munch is also his most accessible, and perhaps the best self-contained statement of his art. Watkins' portrait of the pioneering Dutch expressionist -- shown Thursday in its sub-three hour theatrical version -- casts a wide net, taking in not only Munch's life but his world; the narrator (Watkins) synchs up milestones in Munch's art with global events like the births of Hitler and Goering. When Munch (Geir Westby) scrapes away at his canvas, obliterating all but the essential details, the sound is so magnified it sounds like he's attacking the microphone. Watkins doubles the process with his film, paring and reshaping the narrative, combining and recombining events from Munch's life, so that we may slip from a childhood memory of his late mother, to the death of his sister, to a passionate kiss with the woman known as "Mrs. Heiberg" (Gro Fraas), whose painful relationship with Munch becomes a key aspect in the film's chronicle of Munch's artistic development. As with La Commune, points of comparison are hard to find, especially in the benighted artistic biopic genre. (Just wait for Girl With a Pearl Earring.) At once suggestive, elusive and deeply evocative, Munch may come as close as fiction can to the messy, mysterious process of artistic creation. Even here, Watkins sticks to his guns, encouraging actors to improvise their lines and express their own reactions to Munch's paintings -- the critical and public assault on Munch's work was admittedly a prime point of Watkins' identification. The process of casting actors who resembled their historical counterparts was so effective that a descendent of August Strindberg was enlisted to play the Swedish playwright, apparently by accident. There's no way of telling where the film ends and history begins.
Directors in Focus: Peter Watkins
Through Sun., Dec. 14
International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215-895-6542.