By Ray Sawhill
The best new works I saw at last year’s New York Film Festival were all documentaries about great figures from the movie past. The documentaries — about Leni Riefenstahl, Orson Welles, and the early Soviet titan Alexander Medvedkin — were reminders of the power of industrial-age myths and dreams: the dream of revolution; the revolutionary potential of film; and the idea of revolution as an esthetic, and artist-led, thing.
Watching these films and thinking about myths and dreams, I felt not just awe and horror, but nostalgia. I’ve loved some recent films, but the trends that have been discussed as new New Waves — the Hong Kong action films, the 5th Generation Chinese directors, the African films — have left me dumbfounded, worried that movies are a moribund medium. The festival itself has been a multicultural affair for some years, and though you can feel worthy catching up on what filmmakers from Burkina Faso and Vietnam are doing, you may wonder where the high — the drunken elation — that made you care about movies has gone.
CI recently went to the International Center of Photography for the opening of “Iterations,” a show of computer art and digital imagery — work not by techies, but by traditional artist-types using the new media. Some of the work was likably inconsequential, some dismal, but most of it gave the viewer the same scolding that art shows have been giving art-goers from some years now: oppose oppression, undermine the hegemony of the image, move the marginal to the center, question technology, etc.
What was striking about the show was how even-more-than-usually redundant this familiar package of messages seemed. The media the artists were working with made it irrelevant. Does anyone “trust” a computer-generated, or computer-related, anything? In the digital/multicultural world, it’s simply a given that all is relative, that everything connects, and that power gets dispersed. You don’t have to fight the medium or the establishment it represents to convey this — the medium conveys it for you.
The “avant-garde” (ie., establishment) art world is dealing in the rhetoric of an age that’s almost gone; the artists may see themselves as subversives, but they’re playing a game that’s passé. They think they’re fighting centralized (presumably WASP and male) power and “hegemonic” images, but that world is vanishing all on its own, of old age and sheer out-of-dateness. (And the new world doesn’t offer instant liberation, but a new set of demands, constraints, and challenges.)
We’ve tended to think of artists as romantic figures, and of the best art as being a vanguard activity; we assume that the first indications of new moods and feelings will appear in an art context, whether high or low. And if political revolutions haven’t worked out, well, we have our artistic revolutions to be thankful for and enjoy.
But this time around, the artists (most of them) are not only not leading the new demographic and technological wave, they appear oblivious to it. It just seems to have leaped beyond their conceptions. In the weeks following the Film Festival, tens of billions of dollars of media-company mergers were announced, and the businessmen seemed far ahead of the artists.
The Riefenstahl and the Welles were no more than proficient documentaries with exciting subjects. The documentary that pointed in fresh direction was Chris Marker’s videotape on Medvedkin, “The Last Bolshevik.” The emotionality of this tape isn’t the kind that comes from seeing an artist-hero storm the barricades (or pretend to); the crowing of ego simply isn’t to be heard. It has a different kind of excitement, one that it shares with such works as Robert Altman’s HBO series “Tanner ’88,” the “reality tv” of “Cops” and the Court TV channel, and some CD-ROMs.
Seeing or playing with these new works is different from going to the movies and hoping for a great picture. Traditional films almost always have at least a little of the self-conscious showcase about them, a monument-like aspect that’s suggested by the studio fanfares and logos that usually introduce them: sit back, pay attention, an Event is beginning. You watch, expecting to take in prepared performances, made-up scripts, and predetermined visual schemes; perhaps you hope against hope that the film’s elements will come together and a vision will take you over.
But energy isn’t erupting through the arts at the moment, it’s surfacing in the new technology and the category-busting social changes (the crumbling of boundaries, the new nationalisms, the age-group shifts). “The Last Bolshevik” and the other new works tower over nothing; they’re avowedly part of the general media flux. They don’t make their appearance wearing a familiar label (art, cinema, books), and part of the experience of watching them is wondering, “What is this?” Fictional and non-fictional elements are often scrambled; sometimes beginning and end aren’t apparent, or they seem to have no importance.
Even if you watch “Tanner ’88” on videocassette, it still feels like an inexplicable cable-tv form you’ve stumbled across and haven’t yet got used to. You watch it thinking, “Where did this come from? How did it take shape?” “Cops” can leave you wondering: “Who wrote this? Who’s the director?” Court TV is a story-telling creation (or vehicle) that happens to be a tv network. In these works, the creators aren’t battling the cosmos to wrest form from formlessness, or something from nothing; they’re accepting energy from elsewhere, and surfing on it. Creation becomes less a matter of overturning values and giving birth from the unconscious, and more a matter of balance, imagination, resourcefulness, and craft.
In his slyness, obliqueness, and love of evanescent effects, Marker (who is French) can seem rather Japanese, and he has often visited Japan. (One of his best films is “The Koumiko Mystery,” a portrait of a young Tokyo woman.) The painter and art critic Peter Plagens once explained the difference between western and Japanese sculpture to me this way: westerners make objects that assert their presence against nature, while Japanese sculptors make slipknots in the space-time continuum — devices and contraptions that bring out qualities in what flows over, past, and through them.
That’s what “The Last Bolshevik” is like: a kink in the all-pervasive electromagnetism. Marker is meditative, and his video could be said to be about where images come from, and the roles we play in creating our own fictions and histories. He circles around and around his themes, but dartingly, quick-wittedly.
This video is in the form of six “letters” to Medvedkin, who late in life was a friend of Marker’s. Medvedkin is best known here as the organizer of the Soviet film trains that carried filmmakers, studios, and projection rooms out to the peasants for the sake of education and criticism — to keep the revolution’s fires burning. (In 1988, as perestroika was taking effect, Medvedkin died. One of the last hopes he expressed was that finally a real revolution might be occurring.) The video is Marker’s wave goodbye to his friend, and it’s also a wave goodbye to the movies.
In Marker’s view, the Soviet Union was the great, tragic, esthetic-political experiment of the film age, and he draws connections between it and such subsequent film movements as the French New Wave. “The Last Bolshevik” is impassioned, but it’s also modest and elusive; the computer that Marker, or someone, has used to monkey with some of the historical footage is given its own credit in the title crawl, and this isn’t meant as a joke.
Marker returns several times to talk with a lonely-seeming Soviet cameraman who once worked with Medvedkin. In one shot we see the old technician looking at himself in a mirror through Marker’s Handicam. He seems delighted by the tininess and efficiency of the machine; you have the impression he’s never touched a videotape camera before. As he plays with the focus and zoom, the voice-over says: “this revolutionary’s last act of cinema propaganda won’t be for Communism, it’ll be for Sony.”
Marker is a movie legend himself — he had dealings with the French New Wave, and is the essayist who made such films as “La Jetée,” “Le Joli Mai,” and “Sans Soleil.” In “The Last Bolshevik,” he shows us the industrial age — and its media, and its myths — receding into the distance. Marker isn’t like the artists at the International Center of Photography. He knows that the new technology and demographics are simply moving the old aside. Opening up to history, paradox and irony (and implicating ourselves) is all the “criticism” that’s needed.
Medvedkin — enthusiastic and naive, willfully blind to the turn the Soviet revolution took and desperate to continue working in a medium he adored — gave over in the ’40s and ’50s and made cheery Stalinist propaganda.
Marker, 72 years old now, knows that the artist in the new world has become a relativized figure him/herself. His videotape gets you thinking about how we sully our ideals and let ourselves be misled by them, how we ruin opportunities, and how we see things go to hell. The fact that “The Last Bolshevik” is on tape is one of the most poignant things about it. The infinitely manipulatable video images lap around the edges of the heroic, absurd old film frames like water around a sinking ship.
- A Chris Marker fansite.
- An essay by Chris Marker about how he came to make “The Last Bolshevik.”
- Marker, who died at the age of 91 in 2012, didn’t grant many interviews. Here’s one.
- A short British TV doc about Marker.
©1993 by Ray Sawhill