December 26, 2009

ivens, politics, poetry

I first discovered Ivens (like most North Americans, I suppose) through The Bridge (1928) and Rain (1929). Mundell has something to say about this at Senses of Cinema:
These early films -- in particular The Bridge, Rain and Philips Radio -- retain a high critical reputation for their cinematic beauty and formal inventiveness. Film historians place them equally among the founding films of documentary and the tail-end of Europe's silent avant-garde. However, in light of what Ivens went on to do, they are also “safe” films for critics to like. They are not politically explicit and do not transcend what is acceptable in terms of manipulation for the camera. This is Ivens before he was “spoilt”.
I find this argument peculiar. I have always known Ivens to be a political filmmaker -- every blurb about the man tells me so -- and I have never known film critics/scholars to shy away from the political. (By "political" I mean "leftist," as the case is for the 20th century.) Perhaps they are safe choices, as likeable as they are, but I think these earlier films are best known (here to young film-lovers) for reasons of availability. The early avant-garde is quite popular, and Rain fits in perfectly with a DVD release. Ivens's other films, his later political ones, have the misfortune of being original, of fitting into no defined cinematic "movement," of crossing the lines between politics and poetry, "realism" and "formalism," short and feature. I do not think people are repelled by this work (who would call it "spoilt"?); they just do not know about it, or do not know that they could know about it (as it is a rather rogue branch of their standard history).

That is my thesis. Now on to my guilt: of all the Ivens films I have watched this month, it is his least political (and most poetic) films which I have most enjoyed; namely The Seine Meets Paris (1957), ...A Valparaiso (1963), and Pour le Mistral (1965). Especially The Seine Meets Paris. I have conversed with myself for days about the endless beauty and charm of that film.

I have withdrawn myself from politics. But the left still holds my sympathies, and I find no fault with the messages in films like Borinage (1933) or The Spanish Earth (1937) or Power and the Land (1940). At least, I certainly wouldn't call them "spoilt." But nothing compels me to them, either. And I feel guilty for this because the messages are so painfully heartfelt and sincere. Watching an important Spanish soldier in battle while Orson Welles (is it really him?? the credits say so, but I cannot believe it) tells us he died in that battle is quite moving. But why am I left so cold? I know what it is to believe in this cause, and I know that I ought to engage with Ivens's politics with equal sincerity.

OK, then. Sincere question: What is the hoped-for end of these political films? It is this question with which I stumble when considering films from the left. Perhaps the final end is "defeat capitalism," but one does not bring down capitalism with a single film screening (at least, I hope political filmmakers are not thinking this -- what a disappointment when capitalism continues as it always has!). A film is part of a larger process, a brick in the building of "class consciousness." But how to build class consciousness and proletariat solidarity with a film? There are generally two schools of thought answering this question: the realists and the formalists. The formalists argue that the masses have to be agitated out of false consciousness, and thus the formalists use all manner of artistic agitation in their art. The first half of the 20th century was a hotbed for this school. Eisenstein and Brecht are two noteworthy examples. The realists argue that reality has to be "redeemed" in art, and that bourgeois art (as consumed by the masses) creates false consciousness and masks the suffering of the proletariat; only by portraying reality as honestly and brutally as possible will the masses wake up to their situation under capitalism. This school finds roots with Lukacs and the beginnings of Marxist literary criticism, but it really takes off in the latter half of the 20th century after Bazin and Italian Neorealism.

I draw the reader's attention to Ivens's place in this narrative: Mundell thinks Ivens poses a challenge to the "realists," who so dominate our thoughts today, while in the beginning of his political career Ivens was criticized by the "formalists," who did not like his realist approach. What a pickle.

Before I can comment any further on Ivens's own artistic ambitions, I must study up on him some more (and I will, I will -- though I never seem to keep such promises). Mundell identifies his poetic films, the ones I find so wonderful, as his "mature" films. This is encouraging. The serenity of this poetry, though informed by politics, accomplishes so much more on an artistic/emotional level than straight politics does. So I think. But, again, I really need to study up on Ivens, now that I have a solid foundation. I am most curious about how he originally got into politics and into the left. It happened some time between Philips Radio and Borinage (presumably before Song of Heroes (1932)). Amusingly, Ivens's shift from poetry to politics can be pinpointed in a moment in New Earth (1933). Let me tell you about it:

New Earth is adapted from Zuiderzee (1930), a film Ivens made earlier about the Dutch who "set about reclaiming land from the vast northern inland sea, building dykes, pumping out water and creating new agricultural land." This was part of a series of films called We Are Building. It was commissioned by the Dutch construction workers' trade union (Algemene Nederlandse Bouwarbeidersbond -- so the internet says). From this Zuiderzee film, Ivens made New Earth with the help of two friends, Van Dongen and Hanns Eisler.

The first twenty minutes of the film document the building of dykes and the harvesting of the new land. This is all done in a very relaxed style. In the last ten minutes, however (and this is the crystallization of the political Ivens), the film abruptly changes into a charged polemic, yelling at the fatcats atop the Depression who are letting grain rot while thousands starve so that they (the fatcats) can keep prices high. Newsreels of the Depression are cut in to this section (many of these images are also cut into Borinage) and are accompanied by a bombastic voice singing these lyrics (written by Eisler):
they are throwing bread into the flames
they are throwing grain into the sea
when will the bag-throwers throw the robbing fatcats down?
you see, that is strange, my boy!
you see, this will be some winter, my boy!
All that is amusing enough (I enjoyed myself), but what is more amusing is what Schoots has to say about the film. Apparently this political finale was Eisler's idea, not Ivens's (although he went with it). Schoots describes their difference of opinion:
The addition of a political finale was not a stylistic improvement. A film that had formed a superb unity had been extended with an extra reel in which both editing and commentary were glaring and obtrusive. Ivens had sacrificed the form to the message. He realized that it lacked cinematic unity, and hoped to compensate this with 'the uniting strength of the ideas'. Later he admitted that 'for an economist my position is primitive; the film is an appeal to justice, humanity, common sense.' Eisler, on the other hand, was wildly enthusiastic and wrote to Brecht that, in comparison to New Earth, Eisenstein's Potemkin was 'a sickly, rightist-reformist, yes, almost petit bourgeois, concoction.'
One can only admire such humility.

For those curious, Brecht also had an opinion about the film:
When New Earth was completed, Eisler, Brecht and Kisch viewed the results in a private showing. The Czech expressed his doubts about the scene with the grain, whereupon Brecht declared: 'Kisch, this is a classic masterpiece, you're talking rubbish!'
That is enough politics. Poetry is what I crave. I must rewatch A Tale of the Wind (1988).

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