Friday, February 28, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Dziga Vertov

Vertov, evidently embracing the leatherman look.
A few weeks ago, as I was learning to appreciate the sport of ice dancing, it could not have occurred to me that Russia would so shortly be invading one of its neighbors.  Or rather, it could have, and it did, but I thought that the neighbor in question would be Georgia, as Russia had extended its border security checkpoints into Abkhazia for the duration of the Sochi Olympics.  But instead Russia invaded Ukraine, and this evening I found myself watching Dziga Vertov’s 1931 Ukrainian film Enthusiasm: A Song of the Donbass.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Vertov and his cinematic project.  On the one hand, he was a devout communist, both politically and artistically.  For Vertov, art was politics by other means and it principle purpose was didactic.  This is an ideology that I find absolutely abhorrent.  However, even at his most propagandistic (which was pretty much always), Vertov’s artistry always shined through.  His cinematic montages—and he was one of the pioneers of the montage technique—are consistently fascinating and often beautiful.   One does not have to subscribe to his worldview to appreciate the aesthetics of his films, even if they’re films with titles like Stride, Soviet and Three Songs about Lenin.  He can almost be forgiven for the pernicious influence he had on Jean-Luc Godard, who in the late 1960’s began making Maoist propaganda films with a collective called the Dziga Vertov Group.  Almost.
Vertov, born in 1896 to Jewish parents in what was then the Russian Empire and is now Poland, and who worked for much of his career in Ukraine, is to a certain extent emblematic of the way that these countries, so often at odds with each other politically, are nonetheless deeply and inextricably linked to each other.  We can all certainly hope for a future in which they regard each other with mutual respect and with a shared notion of the importance of human dignity and liberty, and I mean that not in the jingoistic American sense of the word, but in a universal sense.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Farmers and Prostitutes vs. Fascists: On Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy

What do we, as human beings, owe each other?  Good will and kindness, certainly.  But are we obligated to suffer terribly for each other? To die for each other? Under what circumstances? Does it depend on whom we’re dying for?
These are some of the questions raised in Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy (1973), in which a simple farmer-turned-anarchist hides out at a brothel in Rome while preparing to assassinate Benito Mussolini.  Now, this is no simple task, as Mussolini had a number of people try to kill him over the years and he survived all the way until 1945, when the partisans finally shot him at the end of the war.  The exact time period during which the events in Wertmüller’s film transpire isn’t specified, but it’s made clear that several attempts on Mussolini’s life have already taken place.

What really struck me about this film was the deep, convincing humanity of the protagonist, poor, ill-starred Tunin (played by an excellent Giancarlo Giannini).  Tunin does not look the part of a hero.  He’s painfully shy (which probably won’t serve you well at a whorehouse), he’s soft-spoken, he’s out of place in the big city, and he’s clearly—in his own words—scared shitless by the prospect of shooting Mussolini.  He knows that his chances of success are slim and he knows that he may very well be captured, brutally tortured, and murdered.  In fact, he’s not even the top choice for the anarchists who hire him; he only takes over from his friend, a real anarchist-assassin, after the latter gets killed by the fascist police.

As the film progresses and Tunin tries to keep his fear under control, the few people he lets into his confidence (two prostitutes, one of whom is an anarchist agent, the other of whom he falls in love with) try to convince him that he is under no obligation to do what he’s planning to do.  And surely they’re right.  Surely we don’t expect everyone to throw their lives away in a desperate act of violence.  Let’s consider good old Kant’s categorical imperative, which posits that we should act in such a manner as we would want everyone else to act in the same circumstances.  Well, do we want everyone shooting Mussolini? (Or, to put it more plausibly, do we want everyone going out and getting tortured and killed while trying to kill fascists?)  Hell, even the most fanatical rebel movement doesn’t expect that; guerillas are dependent on the support of the civilian population (consider another Italian movie, Rossellini’s Rome Open City).  If everyone went out and became a militant, there would be no civilians to support them.

Do human beings not have a right to escape from history entirely, if they can? If someone tries to get the hell out of a warzone, can we blame him or her? They’re just following the strongest of human instincts: the will to survive.  And this will is coupled with the general inclination to not shoot and kill people.  Perhaps the fear afflicting Tunin and his ilk is generation upon generation of historical memory telling us, “Don’t kill and don’t get killed.” It’s hardly irrational if one submits to this command.