Marxist documentaries

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Jul 17 08:16:31 MDT 2003

NY Times, July 17, 2003
Two Distinct Views of Workers Rising Up

The double bill of documentaries that opens today at the Anthology Film 
Archives bridges 35 years of leftist political filmmaking and suggests 
that just about everything has changed in the field but the basic 
Marxist message.

"Be Seeing You" is a 38-minute, black-and-white agitprop piece filmed in 
1967 by a French radical collective that called itself SLON — la Societé 
de Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles (the Company for Launching New Works).

SLON's founder and most famous member was Chris Marker, the now 
81-year-old globe-trotting documentarist whose work, including "A Grin 
Without a Cat," has lately been enjoying a revival in New York City. The 
group's most widely seen film, "Far From Vietnam" (1967), brought 
together seven celebrated filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, Alain 
Resnais and Agnès Varda, to offer their personal perspectives on 
America's war in the former French colony.

But SLON soon decided that the auteur approach was antithetical to the 
collectivist message the group wanted to convey. By the time of "Be 
Seeing You," SLON was doing its best to strip out any traces of 
subjectivity and stylishness, both of which had come to be considered 
bourgeois vices. Though "Be Seeing You" bears no director's credit, it 
is generally attributed to Mr. Marker and the SLON member Mario Marret. 
And yet it strives for a stylistic neutrality — a sense that no 
filmmaker was present to shape the material.

The action, in this case, is a strike movement at a textile factory in 
Besançon, a city in eastern France. The filmmakers follow a young 
agitator for the leftist labor union CGT as he tries to shape worker 
discontent with a new workweek, one alternating day and night shifts, 
into a walkout. Shot partly in 16-millimeter with synchronized sound and 
partly in silent 8-millimeter (with a camera borrowed from Mr. Godard), 
the film consists largely of static close-ups of workers and organizers, 
who recount the stories of their conversion to socialism in a rough, 
conversational manner.

There is no cutting away during the long monologues, a technique that 
would register as an intrusion by the filmmakers. But of course the 
refusal to cut away is in itself a stylistic choice, and one that can 
feel as manipulative — in its somewhat puritanical insistence that the 
spectator pay grim, undivided attention — as any amount of more overt 
directorial intervention.

Flash forward 35 years, and here is "An Injury to One," a 53-minute film 
by Travis Wilkerson. Again, the subject is labor organizing, though the 
setting is now historical — it is Butte, Mont., in 1917, where Frank 
Little, an agent of the Industrial Workers of the World, is trying to 
organize the city's miserably exploited copper miners into striking 
against the monopolistic Anaconda Mining Company. Little's efforts ended 
in his lynching, most likely at the hands of private detectives hired by 
Anaconda. Among those private detectives was the young Dashiell Hammett, 
who based his brilliant 1927 hard-boiled novel "Red Harvest" on the 
strike. According to the film, Hammett spoke of having been approached 
by the mining company to murder Little; he traced his own radicalization 
to that moment.

Where "Be Seeing You" struggles for self-effacement, "An Injury to One" 
revels in directorial assertiveness, including an omniscient narrator 
and an intrusive use of slick, magazine-style graphics to identify 
characters and spell out slogans. Though much of the movie is composed 
of historical black-and-white or sepia-tinted photographs, there are 
occasional explosions into highly saturated color, contemporary images 
of the devastated Butte area. These new shots are self-consciously 
composed and conspicuously beautiful in a way that largely serves to 
draw attention to the director's taste and skill.

This, of course, would be a capital crime under the SLON aesthetic. 
Still, can Mr. Wilkerson really be blamed for wanting to find an 
audience for his work? It's hard to imagine any post-MTV public sitting 
still for the static camera and fuzzy sound of "Be Seeing You." If the 
aim of the political filmmaker is to create an urge to action, Mr. 
Wilkerson's marching-band approach is unquestionably more effective than 
SLON's somber string quartet. But here, the string quartet is 
unquestionably more artistically satisfying — more economical, more 
refined and more respectful of human experience — than the flash and 
filigree of "An Injury to One."


Directed by Chris Marker and Mario Marret; in French, with English 
subtitles; director of photography, Pierre Lhomme; edited by Carlos de 
Los Llamos; released by First Run/Icarus Films. Shown with "An Injury to 
One" at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, 
East Village. Running time: 39 minutes. This film is not rated.


Written, directed, edited and narrated by Travis Wilkerson; director of 
photography, Mr. Wilkerson; produced by Susan Fink; released by First 
Run/Icarus Films. Shown with "Be Seeing You/À Bientôt, J'Espère" at the 
Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East 
Village. Running time: 53 minutes. This film is not rated.


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