Anarchy film fest May 16 2001

Checking out social chaos on celluloid

“Dammit men, we’ve got to get organized!”

-- Jonathan Winters, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming!

What you think about anarchy depends on what you think about human nature. If, like Rousseau, you think “man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” the end of civilization as we know it is a good thing. If, like Hobbes, you think people are essentially rotten, life in a state of nature is “nasty, poor, brutish and short.” If you’re an existentialist, you don’t believe in human nature, but you still believe in being real.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are a few films about anarchy and social chaos — the bad, the good and the existential.

The bad“The conch shell shatters, down you go.”-- Pink Floyd, “The Wall

Hollow Man (2000) Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Plato had a parable about a man who first turned invisible and then turned into a fiend. His point was that most people are good because they know they’re being watched. (You drive the speed limit when the cop’s around, speed when he’s not.) Invisible, people would be monsters. Plato’s fable was the germ of H.G. Welles The Invisible Man and James Whale’s 1933 movie based on it, which was frightening mainly for the psychological effect the Invisible Man had on the village he terrorized. Verhoeven’s incarnation has psychological horror, too, plus the kind of state-of-the-art, digitally rendered geysers of blood we’ve come to expect in a Verhoeven movie. If you get past that, there’s a philosophical core here. Where invisible Claude Rains was driven insane by the chemical, invisible Kevin Bacon turns evil because he can get away with it. As Plato predicted, a man who doesn’t have to be good becomes very, very bad indeed.

Lord of the Flies (1963) Directed by Peter Brook. Forget those idiotic reality TV shows. For real fun, start with World War III, take a planeload of refugee boys from a British private school (they’d call it a “public school,” go figure) and crash them on an island in the South Pacific while killing all the adults on the plane. Watch as the kids reenact, in microcosm, the workings-out of original sin that led to World War III. Starting out all mannered and proper (the stately choir walking down the beach singing “Kyrie Elieson”), the lads soon revert to savagery (a British boy’s idea of savagery). Folks have called this film racist, but that misses the point: Civilization has a very thin skin, and the beast within is close to the surface, ready to leap out and kill. Brook makes this point via naturalistic performances by untrained child actors, hauntingly filmed in minimalist black and white. It’s easy to find fault with this film (why are the uniforms clean?), but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and it’s wholly disturbing. (See also The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by the same director.)

Rashomon (1950) Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Contrary to urban mythology, Rashomon (the film) is not about the relativity of point of view. (The original short story is, but that’s a different story.) Like Plato, Kurosawa was obsessed with the beast within. How much human “goodness” is merely conventional — because the eyes of society are watching? How bad would people be if there were no eyes to see? In Kurosawa’s fable (set during the social chaos of a Japanese civil war in the 1600s) a bandit ambushes a pair of newlyweds in the woods; later on a woodcutter stumbles into the rape-and-murder scene. Later, the people involved (including a ghost) tell their stories of what happened; the stories are later retold to a group of refugees huddled in the wreckage of the Rashomon gate in old Kyoto. Everyone’s story is different, not because there is no truth but because all the characters are lying to make themselves look good. Contrary to popular opinion, in Kurosawa’s Rashomon we do know the truth — and the truth is everyone acts badly. Hearing this ugly truth almost destroys a Buddhist monk whose deepest religious principle is compassion — but it’s not the whole truth. Kurosawa doesn’t agree with Plato — people aren’t entirely rotten, goodness isn’t entirely an act. As the movie ends, a final act of kindness restores the monk’s faith in humanity.

The good

“And do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”-- Antoinine Artaud

Outside the “no rules, just right” campaign for Outback Steakhouse, anarchist utopias on film are hard to find. This is partly because utopias are boring, partly because society-hating filmmakers are more interested in mayhem than utopia. This has the odd effect of making films by people who hate society look a lot like the films by people who love it. In either case, anarchy is filled with rape, murder and destruction, though the society-haters try to show the mayhem from the point of view of the perpetrators, putting the spree back in crime spree with films like Natural Born Killers, The Doom Generation, etc., a bad selling point for potential crime victims. Topping the list of anarchic crime sprees:

The Weekend (1967) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. “Mr. Hurlot’s Vacation in Hell” as filmed by Jacques Tati on bad acid. The plot, to the extent I grasp it: A dysfunctional family (husband and wife both wanting to murder each other) goes on vacation, hitting the road after the odd bit of screwing, some dirty talk and a parking lot shootout or two. On the road, something bad seems to be happening. They keep passing violent accidents — bloody bodies strewn all over the place like some French driver’s-ed film. This is either a spontaneous breakdown of civilization or the deliberate result of anarchist attacks. (One scene makes this incoherent movie worth viewing: a weird, fascinating 15-minute pan of an endless traffic jam punctuated by weird vehicles and artistic car wrecks.) Eventually, the couple is kidnapped by anarchists who live in the woods. More screwing, violence and car wrecks. Throughout all this, everybody keeps talking; it’s like secondary audio programming filled with pseudointellectual left-wing pontificating. (The influence of Ionesco is obvious; everything’s disconnected, acausal, at cross-purposes. Where this illogic is funny in the hands of an apolitical Tati, Godard’s political ax-grinding makes it merely boring, unless you hit the fast-forward button.) Eventually, the anarchists turn to cannibalism, yielding, perhaps, the origin of the phrase: “eat the rich.”

The existential

“Outside society — that’s where I want to be!”-- Patti Smith

I call these films existential because, while they’re filled with crime, the point is the liberation the crime leads to, rather than the crime itself.

Deliverance (1972) Directed by John Boorman. Based on a novel by James Dickey, this film is all about some Atlanta yuppies who get set upon by buggering, murderous mountain men on a canoe trip, right? Wrong. Forget the surface details, (especially poor Ned Beatty cursed to spend the rest of his life trying to live down that “squeal, piggy!” scene.) Boorman’s point is that out on the river, there’s no bullshit. Some people are trying to kill you; you’re trying to kill them first. Stripped of the bullshit, that’s what human life is. The yuppies go through hell, one of them dies — but they get to be real. They’ve been delivered from the usual bullshit, which is why this film is called Deliverance.

Fight Club (1999) Directed by David Fincher. God, I love this movie. Without giving too much away, let’s just say there’s a 20-something guy (unnamed, though probably “Jack”) enduring a typical life of quiet desperation in a Dilbert cube. Typical, except that he suffers from insomnia. His new-agey doctor doesn’t believe in pills, though. “If you want to see real suffering, check out the testicular cancer support group.” The insomniac does — and becomes a self-help junky, moving from support group to support group in the hours of sleepless night. He eventually finds a woman to have sex with (Helena Bonham Carter as another self-help junky) and good clean male bonding with a guy named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who wants to destroy civilization as we know it. The dude creates a cult of personality centered on illegal underground “fight clubs” — no need to get buggered on a canoe trip to be real when you can beat the shit out of somebody in a basement, right? It’s all about instant self-actualization, like the scene where Tyler sticks a gun in the face of a guy working in a convenience store and asks him what his real dream is. The clerk says he wanted to be a veterinarian. Tyler tells him, “If you’re not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead,” and takes his driver’s license to track the guy down. The fight club begins to look more and more like a mindless militia. Our insomniac eventually wakes up to the fact that he’s trapped in a nasty little subculture. He tries to stop Tyler from destroying civilization because that’s not what he really wants, is it?

The historical

“What are you rebelling against?”

“What have you got?”--Marlon Brando, The Wild One

Here are a few films that don’t fit the category of “good, bad, existential.” Films about periods in history when social breakdown was more than a concept....

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) Directed by Sam Peckinpah. If an anarchist utopia ever existed, it probably existed in the American West. (If it didn’t, that’s where most of us would like to think it did.) This film is one of many mourning the passing of that no-rules utopia. (See also Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller.) Peckinpah’s film is an elegiac spatter-poem about the death of that utopia as Pat Garrett (representing the long arm of the bought-off law) is paid to slaughter his former outlaw friends (including Billy the Kid) and is eventually slaughtered himself by the same robber barons who paid him. Conventional material, maybe, but unconventionally filmed, this movie is stuffed with haunting characters and haunting death scenes — like Slim Pickens shot full of holes, bleeding his life out in a river to the tune of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” In a way the film is one long death scene: the death of freedom, the death of friendship, the death of the West.

Ragtime (1981) Directed by Milos Forman. What’s a movie about the turn of the century doing in a list of films about anarchism? Forget the nostalgic images; in many ways, the time was similar to the 1960s. There was a new kind of subversive music moving from the black ghetto into mainstream white society, a class struggle, a struggle for black civil rights, along with dedicated revolutionaries willing to blow things up. This movie is about what drove certain people into radical action against the power structure — and the cost of that action. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s left-wing novel and directed by Forman, a Czech refugee from Communist oppression, the resulting movie isn’t so much anti-Capitalist but anti-power. If you want to understand anarchists, see this movie. (See Forman’s 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well.)

Rude Boy (1980) Directed by Jack Hazan, David Mingay. Flash forward to London in 1978. With the Clash on the soundtrack, a kid in punk gear wanders through a rotting modernist housing project with graffiti-scrawled walls where racists and leftists square off. (“SWP stands for shitty white people!”) Like the walls, the movie is scrawled with politics that the kid walks past without really noticing — skinhead National Front types to the right of him, punks and hippies to the left. Despite his punk gear, the kid is apolitical. His background should make him sympathetic to leftist punks like the Clash (he’s from the same city, the same class) but there’s something about the socialists and anarchists parading in the street that pisses him off. “There’s always going to be people driving big cars. I fink I wanna be one of those people, y’know?” The story takes place against a backdrop of political frame-ups, Clash concerts (see with your very eyes where Rage Against the Machine stole their act!) and Margaret Thatcher posters. The film’s obvious message: Social disorder is the prelude to social control. Which is just another way of saying ... anarchy is the policeman’s friend. ??