Five Films

A Quick Survey from India to Spain:

Ida (2013, Poland) – Pawel Pawlikowski


Three decades,

five countries,

seven – or is it eight? – languages,

10 hours,

all gems.

Five films selected at random from the International Movies shelf at the New York Public Library are not likely to share many broad thematic or aesthetic commonalities. Or maybe they are and I’m really desperate for an interpretative glue to justify the 10 hours I just spent reading subtitles instead of playing outside with my friends. If Comparative Lit is a thing, why shouldn’t Comparative Film be one too? Or is it? It’s been a while since I left college, but either way, hell, these five movies are all mind-tickling beautiful, intellectually engaging (if someone argues Wrong Move the exception here, I’ll give) and apart from that, somehow deeply connected on an artistic level. And not a one comes from the land of the free, home of the brave.

Other than the obvious commonality of being produced in predominantly non-English speaking countries, the five films discussed here are all differently and very specifically political. Four have been resurrected for English-speaking audiences through the Criterion Collection (maybe that’s the “somehow” of that deep artistic connection), without which this treasure may have been lost, preserved in memory only, at the margins of film culture in their respective countries. The sole non-Criterion title, Ida, was received with immediate international acclaim, having received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015 (the first Polish film to do so).

They all take place in a transitory setting where, sometimes poignantly explicit, sometimes only symbolically so, something world historic seems to be unfolding presently or just around the bend: a still-emerging sense of nationhood and economic development in India following Partition (The Big City) or Yugoslavia after the Resistance period (Man is Not a Bird); a country scarred by the preceding years’ Civil War and subsequent historic tragedy which followed under the Franco regime (The Spirit of the Beehive); the personal desperation and shiftlessness of the German petty-bourgeoisie (Wrong Move) in-between major capitalist crises bookended by Nazi horror and the “End of History” fall of the Berlin Wall.

Wrong Move (1975, Germany) – Wim Wenders

Each is almost novelistic in its approach to character, liminal experiences as depicted through the inner lives of one central character: Wrong Move, for example, is based directly – though loosely – on a bildungrsroman by Goethe; The Spirit of the Beehive uses Frankenstein as its primary source of imagery. They are all, perhaps needlessly to say with Wenders and Ray on the list, excellent examples of auteur filmmaking, the director expressing a strong, personal point of view to his audience directly, even in those cases where state censorship created real obstacles to production. In the case of Beehive, the intervention of state authorities forced the director to veil the film’s meaning in metaphors or oblique references, which I’ve learned has since been branded as the “Francoist aesthetic.” As Paul Julian Smith has noted:

Like many repressive regimes, Francoism attempted to use cinema to change its negative image abroad and to create the impression that freedom of expression was permitted. By producing some internationally successful “quality” films, the regime also hoped to raise the status of Spanish cinema generally, which was at that time dominated by crude, mainstream comedies. By the early seventies, these policies had led to the production and export of many experimental and even discreetly oppositional films, although, of course, no overtly leftist movies could be made. The gaping holes in the plot of The Spirit of the Beehive and the mysterious motivations of its characters are typical of this “Francoist aesthetic,” a term used to describe artistically ambitious movies of the time that made use of fantasy and allegory. These characteristics, which remain so magical to modern audiences, were used in the period as a form of indirect critique. (Smith, 2006)

Farther East and under a dictatorship of a different sort, Makavejev was no stranger to creative censorship himself, as Michael Koresky has detailed in his “Free Radical” introduction to Man is Not a Bird: 

Makavejev’s first run-ins with Yugoslav authorities came in 1958, with his short film Don’t Believe in Monuments, which was banned for five years because of its allegedly too erotic content, and in 1962, with his play New Man at the Flower Market, a cutting critique of the Communist ideal of the heroic New Man, also banned. (Koresky, 2009)

Koresky goes on to explain a “decentralization and democratization” initiative on the part of the Yugoslav state in the later part of the 60s (known internally as the Novi Cinema movement), allowing for a greater freedom of expression across the arts, particularly film. What strikes me immediately in this historic detail is the parallel to developments in the Soviet Union during the same period, one which allowed such classics of literature as Master and Margarita to finally find mass publication nearly 30 years after its completion by Bulgakov. (It’s also worth noting the superficial similarities between Master and Margarita and Man is Not a Bird‘s use of hypnotism as a running thread through their respective stories, perhaps symbolic of a counter-cultural response to the bureaucratized state’s insistence on “hyper-rational” centralized planning.)

Man is Not a Bird (1965, Yugoslavia) – Dusan Makavejev

While my Random Selection of Five International Films from the NY Public Library, Seward Park Branch does not, shamefully, include a single female director, I would argue that two are exceptional examples not merely of strong female characters – exceptional maybe because of their epoch: I wouldn’t expect Indian filmmaking in the 60s, let alone the Bollywood of today, to be the highest example of women’s liberation championed in illuminated celluloid – but of the question and resolution of women’s oppression being placed at the story’s core.

Where The Big City solidarizes with the material struggle of a working mother to overcome traditional patriarchal norms in a modernizing capitalist society still largely in the grips of feudal oppression in Calcutta (fuck, that’s a mouthful), Ida focuses more closely on the politics of identity vis a vis the life of a firebrand Communist Judge (Ida’s Aunt Wanda) and Ida’s own sexual liberation from the confines of Catholic repression.  Both are powerful portraits of families interrupted by the political and moral failings of their respective societies. The story of Ida is the title character’s sudden discovery of her Jewish heritage and search for the remains of her family members’ bodies, brutally murdered by anti-Semites during the Occupation. The Big City shows the social fallout, no fault of the working mother’s own, when the lead character, in an effort to save the family from financial ruin, chooses the workplace over her “place” at the center of the household, aka domestic servitude.

The Big City (1963, India) – Satyajit Ray

We might describe beehives as a home organized by a (matriarchal) dictatorship in some sense, though the buzzing, energetic and productive aspect is all but missing from the mansion in which Erice’s The Sprit of the Beehive takes place. Here, in the stain-glassed drenched honey-colored hues of a wealthy family’s mansion, a father spends his time quietly, painstakingly working on what seems to be a poetic treatise on beekeeping. His wife, equally silent in a far-off room, writes to a presumed wartime lover. Their daughters, Isabel and Ana, are the central characters, their imaginative play, long-held gazes and sisterly rapport an expression of their inner lives: this is where all of the action and beauty of the film occurs.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1975, Spain) – Victor Erice

The plot needs little explanation, considerings its free form of images and “gaps” eluded to above, but two themes should be noted: (1) the “primary image” of Frankenstein, which the director and producer of the film have both referenced as formative in their artistic development; (2) the “fugitive” scene. In the former, Frankenstein can be interpreted from several angles, including the innocence of youth (children must learn who the “monsters” are) or perhaps, more indirectly, the fascistic notion of the Übermensch. However we interpret this device – and many, even contradictory, meanings can be held as valid at once, all the more to evade the censors, of course – what’s important is that, like the film’s creators, Ana is driven by her encounter with Frankenstein at a village film-screening, motivating her to find a “monster” of her own to redeem spiritually. Satiating Ana’s stubborn curiosity, Isabel finally shows her sister an abandoned well house (shown above) where one such monster can be found – this brings us to (2), the unnamed “fugitive,” or in less censored terms, an anti-Franco rebel with whom Ana creates a brief, touching friendship, just before the former is gunned down in the night by a spray of army bullets.

In tone and pace, the film amounts to very melancholic and existential stuff. Many critics have interpreted The Spirit of the Beehive as a film about the traumas of the post-Civil War years, which, if Erice couldn’t say it in dialogue, did as much with light and color. Most poignantly, perhaps, is Ana’s direct encounter with Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein at the film’s end, which brings us full circle to the village film-screening at the beginning. It is in re-staging the scene in which the little girl dies (prompting Ana to ask so insistently, “Why did he kill her?”) that Erice signals that Ana finally understands what happened to her “fugitive” friend:

The intimate connection between life and death in childhood, the great theme of The Spirit of the Beehive, could not be expressed more lyrically and tragically than here. (Smith, 2006)









Déja Vu and The End of History – Paolo Virno


Why did I read this? 

K recently emailed some thoughts on déja vu, introducing an interesting concept of reincarnation that seemed similar (on the suggestion of another friend) to the notion of time’s non-linear passage in Arrival. I won’t reiterate his thoughts here, but I will say that while I myself do not believe in reincarnation, K’s email did encourage me to think more deeply about an otherwise ordinary, un-interesting (in the way an eye-twitch or little itch on the knee is un-interesting) rarity of experience. I was also aware of Paulo Virno’s philosophical study on the topic, so I went ahead and jumped in, hoping that I could bring more to the table in the discussion K raised.

I didn’t realize the depths of the water here…


Before reading this short but difficult study, it’s helpful to remember that it originally appeared in Italian in the late 90s. Verso released the English translation about 15 years later, somewhat removed from its original historical and philosophical context, a period in which Francis Fukayama’s “end of history” thesis became an ideological foundation (read: neoconservative dog whistle) for imperialism’s “victory,” led by the United States, over the Soviet Union. So the illusion goes: bourgeois democracy had at last triumphed over communismbringing to realization the “best,” and final manifestation, of all historical actualities.

Not only is America winning, Fukuyama claimed, but the flourishing of democracy around the world is the fulfillment of a grand historical scheme. The end of the cold war and the disarray of the Soviet Union reflected a larger process -the realization of the Idea. History, Hegel believed (or Fukuyama says he believed), ”culminated in an absolute moment – a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious.” And that moment, it just so happens, is now. (New York Times, 1989)

While I’m convinced of the ideological purpose of Fukuyama’s argument (he was, after all, a State Department official during the Cold War), Virno’s is a much more charitable response, diagnosing a philosophical disease of which “end of history” thinking is a symptom.

In the quote above, Hegel is cited as a launching point for Fukuyama’s thesis, and while Virno wouldn’t disagree, Déja Vu details the picture more accurately, tracing this problematic (or diseased, as I’ve described it) history of philosophy backwards to Kojève, Hegel and, what may be the most challenging but rewarding section of the book, Aristotle. That is, the ideological outcome of the long-dominant and unchallenged Aristotelian relationship between potentiality and actuality may, it turns out, be a collective – and collectively mistaken – acceptance that history could ever reach a teleological end:

Virno’s analysis would appear to imply there no [sic] final telos or structural totality can be permitted if the world is one of endless potentialities – for historical time could not really exist if this were the case. Virno’s offensive offers us then to enter a philosophical battle over time whilst the political consequences of such a battle appear unclear, and for all we know, the price of endless possibilities may turn out to be no future at all. (Marx and Philosophy, 2016)

Rory Jeff’s conclusion above (“no future at all”) is one spin on Virno’s polemics against the “end of history,” though Virno himself would, I believe, take issue with it as the pessimistic interpretation. A more hopeful reading would be the one that replaces telos – a finality of human potentiality – and replaces it with something closer to Marx: Historical Man  – the subject of a truly human history that does not depend on the unfolding of events as if guided by the hand of a divine power (or “culmination of the Absolute”), but that guides history in her own direction, fully conscious of her unlimited potential and unhindered by “antagonistic forms” of bourgeois society that appears “natural” (and “final,” as Fukuyama might have it):

The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individual; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close. (quoted in Fromm, 1961)

If there’s any doubt that Virno is onto something here, just open a newspaper. That so-called “triumph” of the West has proven false, with the promise of democracy leading to the resurrection of all varieties of reaction: nationalism, fascism, neocolonialism and the hollowing out of basic social / public services across the map. In other words, our well-known global and domestic instabilities defy the political premises on which someone could (disingenuously) declare a “flourishing of democracy.”

In that sense, it may seem a little odd that Verso would reintroduce the work to a larger audience now, when anyone with a basic grip on geopolitical realities could hardly accept the stalling of history. It would be a mistake, however, to limit Virno’s critique to what any and all refutations of the “end of history” have in common: namely, that on a basic empirical level, history is still moving. There are political, social, cultural (i.e., historical) battles yet to be won or lost. Instead, Virno goes beyond this ideological point, investigating the very structure of our understanding of time (see Chapter 2: “The Memory of the Present”) to reveal how “end of history” thinking could arise in the first place.

In other words, the relevance of Virno’s arguments does not have to be limited to refutation of State Department ideologues or Trumpian appeals to the “former greatness” of America. It can, I think, be applied to apocalyptic visions of our future (a la Wahhabism) or crude materialist “Marxist” predictions of the culmination of history in socialism, even something as simple as the Social Media Addict and every-attached-to-his-phone millennial. Virno, in other words, is revealing this structure of experience as a means of protecting us from its philosophical harms in the future. Using Henri Bergson as an intellectual foundation, this is  what he calls déja vu: 

“‘We feel that we choose and will, but that we are choosing what is imposed on us and willing the inevitable.’ The state of mind correlated to deja vu is that typical of those set on watching themselves live.” (Virno, 2015)

You may have noticed that I’ve left out egregiously huge details on how these arguments work:

  • What is the Aristotelian connection between potentiality and actuality? And how does that form the basis of our notion of history?
  • What does it mean for déja vu to be a collective, public experience and not, as we commonly hold it to be, a very personal one?
  • Perhaps most egregious in its absence: is there not a way to reclaim deja vu as a liberating capacity, one that fixes us not in our past, but shows us the future?

As I said from the start, I didn’t know what depths I was jumping into here. What I set out to do was show the general outline and purpose of Virno’s work, in order to make it a little more understandable if the reader decides to jump in herself. That said, the questions above could be your life raft. Hold on tight.

This leaves one last question for the review: should she jump in? Was it worth the time? For those interested in Critical Theory (and not uncomfortable with the stubbornly academic language of such work), Aristotle’s Metaphysics or the Philosophy of History broadly speaking, then yes – give it a go. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say the book is the most memorable philosophical text I’ve read, despite memory being its central subject.



Seizing Freedom – David Roediger


Why did I read this?

VersoBooks is a leading leftwing publishing house that specializes in array of social, political, historical and cultural subjects ranging from Critical Theory to Economics. It’s certainly up there on my list of favorite book distributors.

I caught Roediger’s latest release on holiday sale, and since I’m always in the market for studies on Reconstruction, I thought I’d give this a shot, my first read of the author. While I’m familiar with the general background and lead-up to Reconstruction in America, arguably the most egalitarian period in the nation’s history, this book promised a more detailed look at the ordinary, detailed facets of life during this period of history. In that expectation, I was not disappointed. Roediger demonstrates radical attitudinal changes amongst Northerners with respect to the possibilities of black (and women’s) emancipation with such artifacts as anti-racist envelope designs; paintings depicting the social power of women – particularly in the care of disabled veterans; and even popular jokes at the time (“the runaway master”) that showed a world turning upside down. The review below summarizes some additional takeaways and suggestions for further study.


Since taking up independent study of The Civil War and Reconstruction about 10 years ago, I’ve found myself strongly on the side of an historiography that, taking Eric Foner’s research as a foundation, frames this period of American history as a revolutionary one, both in the political and social sense. David Roediger’s Seizing Freedom shares this perspective and expands its description of “revolutionary time” to include suffragists, labor and immigrant rights activists beyond the typical protagonists of such history: Radical Republicans, abolitionists and, of course, the slaves themselves. The entire picture amounts to what Roediger has recovered from a rich and incredibly well-documented collection of primary and secondary sources as a period of “Jubilee,” a joyous era of emancipation, the ripple effects of which could be found in the struggle for women’s suffrage, as well as Marxist and Anarchist-inspired movements for the 8-hour workday.

In many ways, Roediger’s study is a spin-off of the “self-emancipation” concept originally developed by W. E. B. Du Bois’s in his classic Black Reconstruction. The major premise here is that slaves conducted a “general strike” against the Slaveocracy, withholding – before and during the course of the War – their labor through various means of escape, resistance and taking-up of arms in the struggle against the Confederacy. In its current iteration, the thesis is a challenge to titans in the field, such as the brilliant James M. McPherson, whose “Who Freed the Slaves?” answers with a resounding “Abraham Lincoln.”

As I understand his argument, Roediger poses “self-emancipation” against the “Great Man” thesis not by way of absolutely negating Lincoln’s important role in prosecuting the revolutionary struggle against the Confederacy. Rather, borrowing from Byron’s dictum that “…who would be free, must themselves strike the blow” and Frederick Douglass’s understanding that power concedes nothing without a demand, Seizing Freedom challenges us to see beyond Lincoln’s role as the “Great Emancipator” – “shorthand,” Roediger argues, for impoverishing all [the] movements” addressed under the rubric of Jubilee. He identifies the North’s victory in the largely anonymous freedmen, women and allied whites in the abolitionist movement, without whose pressure and resolve the North would not have unleashed the war’s revolutionary potential. As he quotes Douglass in the introductory chapter, “We are not to be saved by the captain, but by the crew.”

Douglass and Du Bois are stand-out figures in this book, and while I have a few outstanding questions about their / Roediger’s “self-emancipation” thesis, Roediger has left me with a much deeper interest in both of his subjects’ thought and activism. Victoria Woodhull’s sister, Tennessee Claflin, has also stood out for me as an interesting subject of deeper study, a militant socialist who at the head of an African-American militia marched with the Irish nationalists, and with the International Workingman’s Association in commemoration of the Paris Commune. 

I have highlighted Union Leagues, Disability Studies (a relatively new field of study it seems), the Civil War Veterans pension program and rifts between the Womens Suffrage and Abolitionist movements broadly as additional focuses for further research. I also appreciated several parallels that Roediger implicitly draws to today’s political environment: (a) the tendency of social movements to break-apart into sectarian or sectoralist milieus during historical troughs (anti-Revolution Time, as Roediger might say) and (b) the tendency of those movements to compromise principled independence when their strength appears to be waning (a la the Suffragists under Anthony and Stanton when they approached the reactionary Democratic Party).

In summary, I found the book to be readable, engaging, conceptually rich, and considering the weight given to such cultural artifacts as suffragist patches and wartime anti-racist envelopes, incredibly detailed. In the Acknowledgements section, Roediger thanks his graduate mentor Sterling Stuckey, an historian and Melville expert “who made this book possible”- remarkable, I think, given Roediger’s own ability to tell such a compelling story across high and low points of social and political history.