Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 53, December 2003

 

 

Vittorio Frigerio

 

Aesthetic Contradictions and Ideological Representations:

Anarchist Avant-Garde vs Swashbuckling Melodrama -- Porton's _Film and the Anarchist Imagination_

 

 

Richard Porton

_Film and the Anarchist Imagination_

London and New York: Verso, 1999

ISBN: 1-85984-702-1

314 pp.

 

A book such as Porton's fairly defies reviewing. _Film and the Anarchist Imagination_ represents such a monumental undertaking that any single observation that comes to mind immediately appears petty, somewhat like complaining about a few misprints when reading the typescript of _War and Peace_. Of course, there are a number of statements you could argue with. Some small facts may not be entirely accurate and some opinions may be definitely debatable. But the scope of the work is such that relatively small imperfections can be very easily forgiven. The avalanche of erudition displayed by the author is indeed enough to awe even the most unsympathetic reader. Porton seems to have seen and analysed just about every film, be it documentary or fiction, that ever featured, even in passing, anarchist characters or themes. This is undoubtedly the main strength of his book: it can be used almost as an encyclopaedia of anarchism on film, and provides a well-written, thought-provoking overview of works ranging from mainstream Hollywood movies to positively forgotten Spanish productions of the 1930s. As such, this book is a remarkable achievement, that will be found equally useful and enjoyable by film historians, media buffs, and political scientists.

 

Now that I have stated in clear terms how appreciative I am of the extraordinary work done by the author, I would like, however, to discuss what in my view is a symptomatic flaw that runs through the entire book. To be fair to Porton, the flaw is not exclusively his. Quite the contrary, it concerns a matter that is consistently overlooked when dealing with the representation of anarchism, be it in movies or in literature. This matter is the opposition between high (or avant-garde) art, and low, or popular productions.

 

In the last chapter, entitled 'The Elusive Anarchist Aesthetic' (a chapter that in fact may well have been placed as an introduction to the analysis, rather than as a conclusion), Porton states: 'A monolithic anarchist aesthetic must be dismissed as elusive and dubiously essentialist: unlike the Marxist aesthetic, the anarchist conception of art is not 'normative', but is presented in the form of a project which leaves the door wide open to the future.' (231) He goes on to suggest that, in future years, anarchist sensibility will likely find yet other new and surprising ways to manifest itself within contemporary culture. This prediction certainly seems destined to come true, if the vitality shown in the numerous incarnations of anarchism Porton discusses continues as it has in the past. A normative anarchist aesthetic would indeed be a contradiction in terms. However, if libertarian artists, writers, and filmmakers have naturally been avoiding norms like the plague, other practical canons have been more difficult to steer clear of entirely. First among them, *genre*.

 

Porton chooses to discuss works not on the basis of the genre they belong to, but according to their subject, their period, or their historical context. Thus he often finds himself discussing and comparing the relative value of documentaries (mainstream or alternative) and movies. Moreover, and more importantly, he opposes what one could call 'art films' (low-budget features with relatively limited distribution) to popular, or mass films. It could be argued that the respective means and goals -- not to mention publics -- of these separate genres would warrant a specific, distinct treatment. Instead, Porton's comments tend to lean systematically towards praise of the documentary genre as the most apt to reveal actual historical truth, and of the 'art film' as better able to marry formal techniques and philosophical content. Concurrently, he criticises attempts at fictionalizing historical events for mass consumption as inevitably destined to hopelessly deform reality. I don't want to suggest that this point of view is entirely devoid of value. However, I contend that the fact of not having drawn a line between these different genres can lead, as it does here, to a systematic devaluation of the role, the specificity, and the usefulness of 'popular' fiction, and to a corresponding over-evaluation of the effectiveness of 'exploratory aesthetic foraging' (52) as a means of investigating anarchist 'reality'. The end result is an unspoken but omnipresent equation between anarchist aesthetic and avant-garde aesthetic.

 

This is by no means a novel point of view. In French culture in particular there has been a long-standing assimilation between symbolist or decadent poets and anarchist politics, due to a connection between these two universes that has often been exaggerated and deliberately mythologised. Much has been said, for example, about high-brow poets such as Mallarme being anarchist sympathisers, while their association to the cause appears to be largely accidental. Porton is entirely correct in stating:

 

'A series of inadequately understood events from the late nineteenth century continue to fuel distorted views of anarchism and anarchists. The most powerful sources of anti-anarchist literature and cinema probably lie in two interrelated traumas from the late nineteenth century which still reverberate in our own era: the brief, but spectacularly ill-fated, alliance of Bakunin and Sergei Nechaev in 1869-70 and, some years later, the popular misinterpretation of Malatesta and Paul Brousse's doctrine of 'propaganda by the deed' as a justification for random acts of terror.' (13)

 

However, it is also this second 'trauma' that coupled for the first time avant-garde poets and anarchist bomb-throwers in the public's mind. The infamous 'proces des trente' (trial of the thirty) and 'les lois scelerates' (the iniquitous laws) that marked the high point of government repression of anarchist activities in the last decade of the 19th century, also put under the spotlight a number of writers and intellectuals, such as Felix Feneon, with close ties to anarchist groups. A few of them also contributed articles or fiction to some anarchist publications (notably _L'en dehors_ and _La Plume_) with a distinct literary bent. This being said, the connection between avant-garde aesthetic and anarchist aesthetic (at that particular historical moment) is much thinner than generally thought. Indeed, most of the fiction published in anarchist publications during that time is much more influenced by the aesthetic of the 'popular' novels that were routinely served in daily instalments by the press. Porton himself notes that:

 

'No doubt inspired by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre's novel which was the source for Feuillade's _Fantomas_ (1913-14), the historian Andre Salmon invoked the eponymous master criminal of screen and literature to set the stage for his study of French 'illegalist' anarchists such as the notorious 'Bonnot gang'.' (19)

 

Salmon was not the only one to be struck by the similarity between the heroes of nascent mass literature and the anarchist rebels. Other Feuillade movies inspired by popular novels were packed with allusions to anarchists and dynamite. [1] One could also mention the activities of Alexandre Jacob's gang, 'the workers of the night', which supposedly inspired writer Maurice Leblanc in the creation of his famous character, Arsene Lupin, 'the gentleman thief'. Leblanc -- definitely not a symbolist poet -- also published some of his short stories in the anarchist press.

 

There could be many more examples of the close relationship between popular writing and anarchist sensibilities. In his critique, however, Porton often focuses on the techniques of popular writing to condemn what he perceives as a misrepresentation of actual historical truth. Speaking of the movie _Joe Hill_, for example, he notes:

 

'Widerberg's film avoids addressing these political niceties by creating a sentimentalized Joe Hill who is more archetypal folk hero than anarchist or libertarian Marxist. This strategy will not surprise anyone familiar with mainstream Hollywood bio-pics, what is interesting, for our purposes, is how the film, consciously or not, avoids the more anarchistic components of Hill's life while emphasizing his status as a folksy balladeer.' (59)

 

In the same vein, when discussing a movie on the life of the famous Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno, he states:

 

'Although an oft-repeated rumour that Makhno once worked as a village schoolteacher has been definitely disproved, Berkman's scenario provides the idealized peasant leader with a schoolteacher sweetheart named Tanya whose 'sweet and appealing nature' makes her in all respects the perfect paramour . . . this idyllic romance becomes the aspiring screenwriter's ruse for combining the anarchist spirit with a romantic intensity that brings to mind Hollywood 'swashbucklers' . . . [Berkman's] efforts to transform Makhno's life into a series of nail-biting cinematic adventures has much in common with the unreflective grandiosity of historical epics such as _Doctor Zhivago_.' (73)

 

And again, in discussing the movies produced in Spain during the Civil War, he remarks:

 

'Film historian Roman Gubern's claim that the CNT's documentaries and newsreels were far more innovative than their frequently clunky fictional efforts is difficult to dispute. Yet these fiction films' idiosyncratic synthesis of anarcho-syndicalist agit-prop and recycled genre conventions is often fascinating . . . Sau's blend of melodrama and consciousness-raising is often mawkish, but the film is none the less peppered with striking moments' (79).

 

This somewhat half-hearted admission, though, does not prevent him from concluding:

 

'If the CNT's fiction films grew out of an earnest, if sometimes inept, attempt to use radical politics with mass entertainment, their documentary shorts, particularly those focusing on the iconographic role of the anarchist militia leader Buenaventura Durruti -- more accurately reflect the anarchist movement's strengths and internal contradictions.' (80)

 

What Porton appears to miss is that sentimental romance, swashbuckling adventure, and melodrama form an important part of the fictional arsenal with which nineteenth-century anarchists viewed themselves and their situation. These 'recycled genre conventions' were arguably felt as providing a better representation of the living conditions of the people and of the struggle of the militants than the 'high brow', modern fragmentary aesthetic of the avant-garde. Indeed, the 'lachryomose [sic] sentimentalization of poverty that permeates _La Boheme_, Puccini's opera' (235), and the book by Murger that it was drawn from, is not very distant at all from the aesthetic of Naturalism -- Emile Zola's literary movement, which often denounced the fate of the working class in what was felt at the time to be a 'hyper-realist' style. Indeed, Zola's work, with few exceptions, was very well received in anarchist circles. While much of Porton's arguments about twentieth-century anarchist-oriented artistic movements, such as Surrealism and Situationism, holds true, I do feel that his obvious allergy to the trappings of 'popular' genres prevents his analysis from offering a complete picture of the evolution of anarchist aesthetic, at a crucial time for the development of the movement's image.

 

In short, Porton's book offers a wide-ranging view of anarchism in film, but does so in a somewhat skewed manner, consistently opposing genre movies to the more evolved and complex aesthetic of the avant-garde, or to the supposedly more 'realistic' approach of certain documentaries: 'after all, a fiction film . . . which strives to fuse historical exegesis with adventure and romance will inevitably lack the leisurely scope of a lengthy documentary' (88). His ideal can probably be identified in Nick MacDonald's documentary _The Liberal War_ (1972), that he describes as:

 

'a critique of the ideological underpinnings of the Vietnam war that is as much autobiographical reflection as documentary, [and] is a paradigmatic example of the post-Romantic anarchist impulse. Made by a committed anarchist in his own apartment, the film is exemplary for its modesty. This stripped down combination of documentary and autobiographical reflection adheres to the goals of anarchist pedagogy with a bare-bones aesthetic, which avoids the heavy-handed editing and sentimental rhetoric that Macdonald abhorred in 'liberal documentaries'' (246).

 

The theoretical basis that justifies this approach does not become evident until the last few pages of the book, when Porton attempts -- rather unconvincingly, I should say -- to re-evaluate the work of Dwight MacDonald. This critic, perhaps best-known for his book _Against the American Grain_ (which, interestingly enough, is not mentioned by Porton), offered what is conceivably the most extreme denunciation of the evils of 'masscult', and one of the most direct assimilations of 'high brow' avant-garde artistic creation with 'high art'. Once again, I would recommend reading the last chapter of the book first, in order to better appreciate the theoretical underpinning of Porton's judgments.

 

Two items, quite minor but not without importance, still remain to be addressed. Porton talks of Chabrol's thriller _Nada_ as an example of the kinds of movies that exploit the fear of the 'anarchist peril'. He goes on to add: 'Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel _Serie noire_, this departure from the usual Chabrolian territory of middle-class adultery and purely apolitical homicide focuses on a ragtag group of Paris-based anarchists' inept kidnapping of the American ambassador'. (30) It should be pointed out that _Serie noire_ is not the title of the original novel, but the title of the famous collection created by Marcel Duhamel for the publisher Gallimard, that introduced to France the most important post-war American detective-story writers. The title of Manchette's book is also _Nada_.

 

Finally, in critiquing Lina Wertmuller's film _Love and Anarchy_ as a 'hybrid of historical fiction and commedia all'italiana' (26), Porton mentions the attempt on the life of Mussolini by 'committed anarchists' such as Anteo Zamboni. Somewhat offended by the film's representation of an anarchist would-be tyrant-slayer as 'an unmitigated buffoon', he states that:

 

'The impulsive Tunin, with his utter ignorance of the anarchist tradition, bears no resemblance at all to the actual individuals, accused . . . of attempting to kill Il Duce. Men such as Anteo Zamboni . . . could never be reduced to a primal, but ultimately apolitical, embodiment of some fancifully 'anarchist' life force' (26).

 

This statement is much more categorical than it should be. In fact, it would appear that Zamboni's knowledge of anarchist philosophy, if any, was rudimentary at best. More likely, the unfortunate youth was simply a pawn in a conspiracy orchestrated by extremist elements within the Fascist party itself, as recent research indicates. Brunella Dalla Casa's book _Attentato al duce. Le molte storie del caso Zamboni_, certainly seems to suggest that. [2] Heroic gestures by committed anarchists did indeed take place, but the genre 'commedia all'italiana', like much popular fiction, can sometimes prove to be much closer to reality than it would appear at first glance.

 

Dalhousie University

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

 

 

Notes

 

1. See on this subject Serge Chazal's article on _Les Vampires_, _Belphegor_, vol. 1 no. 2, June 2002 <http://www.dal.ca/etc/belphegor/vol1_no2/articles/01_02_Chazal_Vampir_fr.html>.

 

2. See also Dino Taddei's article, 'Il giovane Anteo', _Rivista anarchica_ no. 271, April 2001 <http://www.anarca-bolo.ch/a-rivista/271/25.htm>.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Vittorio Frigerio, 'Aesthetic Contradictions and Ideological Representations: Anarchist Avant-Garde vs Swashbuckling Melodrama -- Porton's _Film and the Anarchist Imagination_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 53, December 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n53frigerio>.

 

Read a response by the book's author:

Richard Porton, 'Vagaries of Taste, or How 'Popular' is Popular Culture?: A Reply to Frigerio', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 57, December 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n57porton>.

 

and Frigerio's reply:

Vittorio Frigerio, 'Post-modern Bogeymen and the Alibi of 'Good Taste': A Reply to Porton', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 18, May 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n18frigerio>.

 

 

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