Killing the Dead: Revolution on Film

by Niall Anderson

Cuban Revolution 50th anniversary celebrations, Havana, 2009 (Reuters)

For a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s, it looked as though the revolution would be televised, and not only that, it would be produced, directed and paid for by Hollywood. These were the years of Zabriskie Point (featuring Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver), Medium Cool (which wove into its story ground-level footage of the 1968 Chicago riots) and The Strawberry Statement (which featured author James Kunen as himself, re-enacting the Columbia University protests he’d experienced as a student). Adopting the verité styles of the French New Wave and a blithe moral seriousness all their own, the countercultural success these films enjoyed was buttressed by the much larger successes of The Graduate, Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde. For a short moment in cinema history it looked as though revolution had made its home on Sunset Boulevard.

Since then we’ve seen a lot of films like The Graduate, Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde, but we haven’t seen too many like Zabriskie Point – or at least not from the mainstream. The cinemagoer who likes transgressive politics along with their popcorn has been obliged to find it in the genres, or in films by auteurs whose expressed politics (Godard’s Marxism, for instance) lead to their films being pre-ghettoised. And the sad fact for cinematic revolutionaries is that you can’t have a real revolution without popularity.

Yet the appetite for revolution was clearly once there, among filmmakers and filmgoers alike. What happened to it? Rebels and rebellion haven’t died out in cinema, but the revolutionary is almost extinct. On the occasions he or she reappears, it’s in films that are almost sanctified by their own important novelty. When Steven Soderbergh’s Che was released (2008-2009), it wasn’t unusual to see it compared to Roberto Rossellini’s biopics of St Francis of Assisi or Pascal. The comparison is instructive in several respects, few of them positive. Soderbergh’s Che dies with the cry that the revolution is what is important, but the very coolness of the critical notices, the poor box-office Che enjoyed, and even the style of the film itself seem to argue against him. Che is not the great martyr of a living revolution: he belongs with religious reformers of centuries past. Che is over.

Soderbergh’s film also illustrates one of the great problems with any fictional account of a revolutionary life: the greater the deed, the less relatable the person who did it. Unable to make Che’s passion understandable, Soderbergh settles for making him consistent. So the first part of Che flicks between Guevara’s successful anti-Batista campaign in Cuba and his valedictory address to the UN in 1964. Soderbergh is almost limitlessly scrupulous in his treatment of Che elsewhere, but for his film to work dramatically he has to make it look as though Che in 1964 is merely expressing the sentiments that sustained him during the Cuban revolution. Whereas the historical Che’s thinking had changed hugely in those years. The result is that Soderbergh’s hero can be seen accepting advice, but he can’t be seen to grow or change. He never gets it any more right or more wrong: he is always Che. And Che, as we’ve seen, is over.

Given such an atmosphere of false sobriety, and given the labour of fidelity such films seem to demand of their makers, is it any wonder that we tend to prefer cinematic rebellions tidy and unambiguous? In a pure fiction, the rough edges can be sanded off: that twenty-minute discussion of the dialectic needn’t happen. But this doesn’t explain how little traffic there is between the ideas that inspire a film like Che (or a man like Che Guevara) and the ideas that inspire purely fictive treatments of rebellion and revolution. In contrast to the positivist and creative revolution someone like Che espouses, the classic Hollywood rebel tends to be defined by negativity and ideological formlessness. ‘What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?’ Marlon Brando is asked in The Wild One (1953). Brando shrugs: ‘Whaddaya got?’ It’s a justly famous line, but it also shows the limits of Johnny’s purpose. The point of his rebellion is remake himself rather than the world. As long as the world makes room for him, he could care less.

The style of its expression aside, Brando’s rebellion sometimes looks like a very American form of conservatism: he asserts the right to be himself in the world, and his right to be left alone, and nothing more. But maybe one of the chief problems with dramatising revolution is precisely that the longer a revolution goes on, the more it begins to look like conservatism. New ideas become dogma; fervour becomes paranoia; and history itself becomes a kind of religion, in which the mildest dissent is heresy. So the sentimental conservatism of somebody like Brando’s Johnny is rather more relatable – and rather easier to write about – than the punitive conservatism of someone like Fidel Castro.

With this in mind, perhaps the most interesting recent depiction of revolution is Olivier Assayas’s Carlos (2010). ‘Behind every bullet an idea!’ announces Carlos ‘The Jackal’ Ramírez early on, putting his revolutionary credentials on the table quickly. But the film as a whole is nicely ambiguous about the extent to which Carlos ever believed any of this, and very clear that Carlos was not so much a revolutionary himself as the violent hireling of revolutionaries. Assayas’s film is very broad – Carlos sometimes comes across as a maverick who gets results whether the penpushers in Gaza like it or not – but this rarely grates because the film’s real topic is the creation of Carlos the myth from stray attributes of Carlos the man. There is an unforced pathos as well as much comedy in watching Carlos attempt to live up to what he hears about himself. His greatest outrages are done to prove himself a true revolutionary, but instead reinforce his reputation as a wild man – the terrorist as performance artist. He never abandons his revolution; the revolution abandons him.

It seems strange to call this a fresh approach, given that the theme of a man deranged by fame is old as literature, but perhaps the only strange thing is that nobody else has really approached the modern revolutionary through the prism of global popular culture. Soderbergh’s Che ends at the point that a million posters and t-shirts were born, but Assayas’s Carlos takes us right into the churn of the news cycle and the pop aestheticisation of revolution and terror. The passage of time allows Assayas to be ironical about this process – a blessing of hindsight denied to something like Godard’s One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil), which trafficked in many of the same ideas but in deadly and deadening earnest.

And yet it’s hard not to miss some of that earnestness, and it’s hard not to notice that when film takes on revolution these days, it’s a revolution in the past tense. Of English-language films about revolution, the one that’s come closest to dealing with a present day instance is, curiously, David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). This has almost all the classic ingredients: a monkish cadre of intellectuals attempting to build a new society; in-fighting about the pure or pragmatic uses of their founding idea; the corruption of that idea through an experimental and increasingly cynical populism. All The Social Network really lacks is a sense of genuine high stakes. Chicks, money and not wanting to be thought a complete asshole are about as elevated as it gets. But, to adapt the film’s tagline, if you can’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies, surely your very popularity means you can risk making a few more. Hollywood, anyway, doesn’t look like it wants to risk it. And perhaps this brings us to a last truth about revolution: the successful ones belong to the community, but the failures get pinned to individuals. Who, in such a climate, is going to want to break rank?

“Carlos” and “Che” are both available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Optimum

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3 thoughts on “Killing the Dead: Revolution on Film

  1. The lack of any comments surprised me on this, as I loved the piece – particularly the Social Network point which had me laughing aloud walking through the airport. Of course the odd thing that never gets mentioned is that the nearest thing we have these days to proper revolutionary cadres are – as 4 Lions shows – Islamist cells.

    1. By coincidence, an early draft had an earnest and slightly over-egged comparison between al-Qaeda and Wikileaks: a figurehead but no leader; an agenda but no organisation; an expedient tolerance of dunderheaded fellow-travellers (the Taliban in one case; Holocaust deniers in the other). I was suggesting that this was the new face of revolution, and wondering who would put it on film.

      Seemed safer as well as less nuts to end on The Social Network. But I’d still love to see David O. Russell’s Life of Bin Laden or Paul T. Anderson’s ASSANGE!

  2. ” Brando’s rebellion sometimes looks like a very American form of conservatism: he asserts the right to be himself in the world, and his right to be left alone”

    The notion of the self in American culture seems to keep recurring in ideas that kind of swither between being subversive and conservative (and shoot of roots in both directions). You can find bits of it in the concept of the frontier, the transcendentalist poets, humanistic psychology, Ayn Rand, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, all those quotes attributed to Elanor Roosevelt, the ‘be your self messages’ you get in Saturday morning cartoons, loads of advertising and a great deal of 50s and 60s American cinema. I’m finding it easier to lazily drop names into the stew than form a coherent argument because it’s too big for me but I suppose it’s partly to do with the way the self can be a aesthetic idea, psychological space, as well as a kind of unit of economic and political power.

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