Now Playing: The Polyphonic Spree--"Light To Follow"
La Commune (2000): What better way to spend Christmas Eve than by watching a six-hour docudrama about the brief life and brutal suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune? I'd first heard about Peter Watkins' mammoth "act of resistance" in the Metro Times (of all places) a few years ago--apparently it was playing at the Detroit Film Theater. My curiosity grew after I learned about Watkins' own filmmaking exploits. His 1965 film The War Game was banned by the BBC and the British government for its (by all accounts) bloodcurdlingly realistic portrayal of a nuclear attack on the London area and the government's inevitable inability to do anything about it. Since then, he's been the outsider filmmaker par excellence, spectacularly turning his attention to the Commune. The defeat of the Second French Empire during the Franco-Prussian War left a caretaker republican government without any legitimacy, certainly in Paris, where the working class had sent its people into the army only to have them apparently sold out by a bourgeois government solely interested in covering its ass and making peace with the new German Empire (itself declared that year just outside of town in Versailles). The city councils and the largely working-class National Guard organized their own authority as the "Commune," in which Paris effectively seceded from the rest of France. After a short period of vivacity, in which a socialist system was established throughout the city, the government, having signed its treaty with the Germans, sent in regular troops to quell the Commune. While nearly a thousand hostages were killed by the Communards in response to the government's initial atrocities during the "reconquest," the government proved far more bloody, killing around 30,000 people (many not even Communards) in the horrific Semaine Sanglante, or "Bloody Week." This, at any rate, is a general, vaguely left-wing version of the history (with which I find little wrong). For those who visit Paris today, the famous Sacre-Coeur cathedral can be seen as the succeeding Third Republic's attempt to exorcise the memory of the Communards.
They were partially successful. The Commune itself is a fascinating phenomenon, forming a link between the popular outbursts (in France) of 1789, 1830, and 1848, and the more centralized and authoritarian revolutions of the 20th century. I've read a couple of English histories of the period, Alastair Horne's The Fall of Paris and Rupert Christiansen's Paris Babylon (both far too long ago; I'll certainly need to revisit them now), and would be very interested in finding a French one in translation. Interestingly, though, the Commune (at least according to the accompanying documentary on Watkins, The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins) labors under the burden of historical amnesia in France, perhaps even more so than the spectre of Vichy collaboration during the Second World War. I suspect the reason for this to be that the Third Republic, the constitutional government that rose out of the ashes of the Second Empire and Commune, is largely the government that France has today, even with the existence of the Fourth Republic (founded after Liberation in 1944-45) and the Fifth Republic (current; founded after the political division in 1958 concerning the war in Algeria). Doubtless the powers that be don't want citizens looking too closely. The film and its methods drive home the point with irresistible force.
Watkins found only one French TV network to fund La Commune, Arte, and the latter aired the film late at night on a Friday, when (again, according to The Universal Clock), hardly anyone would be watching. It was a huge pity, as La Commune is definitely one of the most interesting films I've ever seen (and engrossing, too, even at six hours). Watkins had 200 non-professional actors and a large warehouse in which to film, and the result is arguably more urgent and realistic than many historical movies which invest in "historical advisers" up the wazoo and end up with something like Braveheart. The democratic ethos Watkins sees in the Commune extends to the script, much of which was written by the performers themselves, all of whom were encouraged to develop their own characters and backstories. The result is a convincing cross-section of Parisian society circa 1871, with the actors just as divided in their loyalties as their characters. The action frequently runs into extended debates, which begin over what to do with the Commune and turn into what to do about present day French (and global industrial) society. The film kept reminding me that it was filmed in 1999, the same year of the Seattle demonstrations against the WTO and the year that anti-globalization sentiment became front-page news, two years before the media claimed "everything changed." Watching it eight years later drove home the point that a lot hasn't, both since 1871 and 1999. Watkins lays a lot of the blame on the media, and reinforces his conviction by introducing two media analyses of the Commune into the movie, one representing the Thiers government, "National TV Versailles", and the other, "Commune TV," created by the Communards themselves after they seize filming equipment. This could have been a cheesy public-television stunt, but it adds context, especially as, despite Watkins' obvious partiality to the Commune, Commune TV is shown partially ignoring their leaders' gradual abandonment of the democratic process under the growing pressure of government attacks. Even the increasing stridency of the information title cards (beginning with valuable information on French history and society c. 1871 and 1999 and ending with slogans that would look good in somebody's zine) fail to diminish the movie's emotional and informative power (it's even genuinely funny at times). It all comes to a head in the Semaine Sanglante (originally broadcast on Arte at three in the morning), half an hour or so of grueling, utterly compelling cinema. In the end, that's what La Commune's all about. The history may be partisan, but it's obviously and necessarily so, given the circumstances, and the artistic quality and thought-provoking nature of the film are undeniable. Bravo, Peter Watkins.
Some other reviews (one rather skeptical of Watkins' work):
Scrooge (1970): The 1951 A Christmas Carol, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring the incomparable Alastair Sim, is rightly regarded as the greatest of all versions of Dickens' classic, but after watching Ronald Neame's musical version, with songs by Leslie Bricusse, I think it's well on its way to becoming my own personal favorite. Part of it's down to the set design (nominated for an Oscar, if I remember rightly), a more convincing recreation of Victorian London than most movies have managed, part of it down to the catchy music (Scrooge even sings a song called "I Hate People," and I think Bricusse also wrote a few Bond theme songs), and part down to the fantastic supporting cast, the best being Alec Guinness' droll Jacob Marley, Kenneth More's tetchy Ghost of Christmas Present (he wasn't bad in Sink The Bismarck! either, but I still don't get Father Brown) and above all the late, great Anton Rodgers as the non-canon Tom Jenkins, the wiseass, penurious soup cook (yay!). The selling point of Scrooge, though, is the casting of Albert Finney as the title character. Watching it at first and thinking it's only ten years after Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (and seven years after Tom Jones, three after Two For The Road, etc.) is enough to blow my mind while watching him as the crotchety old miser. Usually an older actor such as Sim or George C. Scott (in the 1984 CBS version) gets Scrooge while a younger (respectively, George Cole and Mark "Turlough" Strickson) winds up as... the younger. Finney proves yet again what a good (and come to think of it, taken for granted) actor he is, convincingly portraying all the ages of Scrooge and (vitally) taking full physical part in all the singing and dancing (it sure doesn't sound like anyone was dubbed--I'm still stunned that Anton Rodgers had it in him). The result is an entertaining, moving, surprisingly low-key rendition of the Christmas classic, with Scrooge's visit from the Ghost of Christmas future turned into a minor gem of black comedy. They really ought to show this every once in a while around this time of year.
Hello Dolly! (1969): Every few years or so, Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor puts on a movie at the Michigan Theater on the 25th of December so the congregation and anyone else at loose ends that day'll have something to do, apparently (seriously, that's the reason given). I went to their showing of The Sound of Music some years before (the singalong kind) and it was great fun. I'd already had a rather busy couple of days (went to St. Andrew's the night before for carols, only to find out that the time was wrong--that or they were overproselytizing) and I was right in the middle of a pre-midnight Communion, for half of which I hung around), and decided to go see this, as I'm a huge fan of Babs' early screen work (her music's crap, though, isn't it?) and also of early Michael Crawford (I could only watch two episodes of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, though--my brain just didn't have the energy), and there'd be kosher hot dogs. The occasion itself was enjoyable enough; I even ran into a fellow Planned Parenthood volunteer (who apparently does something important at the temple, I believe). As for the movie... Watching this after the gritty realism of La Commune and even Scrooge, I suppose it was working with a handicap, but there's also that Doctor Doolittle the-Cleopatra-of-musicals reputation, as it apparently took several years to make any money. This, unsurprisingly, was the result of the stultifyingly overdone set design. Wondering how many thousands of dollars they could have saved and still had an entertaining musical rather got in the way of it being all that good, and the story itself's a little lightweight. Fortunately, Babs is terrific (and gorgeous), with a few songs I don't remember from the actual musical giving her character some depth and warmth, Louis Armstrong shows up (with everyone applauding as he did so) and Crawford convincingly manages an American accent all the way through (most, anyway--it's mildly unsettling to think of him in Richard Lester classics like The Knack--And How To Get It and How I Won The War and then in this). The rest of the cast is okay but unremarkable, Walter Matthau glowering like Christopher Lee (although Lee wasn't responsible for maybe the single worst "celebrity" cameo in cinema history--watch Earthquake and you'll find out what I'm talking about). It's especially odd to think of the differing talents going into Hello Dolly!--Gene Kelly directing, Alexander "Star Trek" Courage helping on the music, and Ernest Lehman (!!) writing. It was okay, but not one of my favorites.