La Commune: Revolutionary Potential

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Aflwydd
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Jun 11 2011 21:40
La Commune: Revolutionary Potential

This thread was also created on a film forum I frequent. If there's any good replies here and if you don't mind, I may post a few of them on the film forum. Of course, if you don't want me to, I won't!

A few months ago, I watched Peter Watkins’ La Commune after overcoming my general distrust of ‘political’ films. On the whole, I find them to tendentious, tedious and simplistic. The likes of Ken Loach seem incapable of moving past the view that every problem in the world is caused by the prevailing political ideology of our time, and offer simplistic answers to very complex problems. Furthermore, many political film-makers don’t practice what they preach in the forms that they work with.

Peter Watkins is an exception. He realises that the forms of communication in society have to be socialised before any change is possible. Unlike most political film-makers, his films explore the potential of a democratic media, organised from the bottom up, by an informed populace.

La Commune is his most radical attempt at showing how a truly democratic and pluralistic form of communication can work. He explores the potentialities but also the pitfalls of such a revolution. Realising that a new society cannot merely use the existing forms available to them, but need to create new forms, he takes the monoform, as he calls it, and plants it in 19th century France during the revolt in Paris that led to the creation of the Paris Commune, the first attempt to create a truly democratic, almost Anarchist, society.

One of the many reasons that the film works is that you don’t need a detailed understanding of the Commune to understand and appreciate what Watkins, and his cast, is doing. A mistaken interpretation that has influenced many people’s opinion about the film is the belief that it’s trying to be a historical documentary or an ‘epic’. From the beginning of the film, Watkins is telling the viewer that this film is an experiment. The first sequence of the film shows the camera slowly travelling around the set, showing the artificiality of the environment, not allowing the viewer to ‘escape’ from the reality of what is being shown.

Watkins wants the viewer to be an active participant in the film, just as each member of the cast is. Both audience and actors are asked to help bring Watkin’s vision to life by taking the chance to use the immense freedom that has been offered to them. Throughout the film, the cast members are allowed to express themselves, not bound by a script or strict direction, but given the chance to be.

This experiment, one of the most radical and revolutionary in visual communication history, asks questions of the audience, the cast, and even the director. Writing about the film, Watkins mentioned the almost impossible task he faces in practicing what he preaches. After all, being the director, he finds himself in a naturally dominant position, where he relays demands to his cast. Even though he writes about a democratic visual communication form not dictated by hierarchies, he’s unable to eliminate the hierarchy from his own work, and this seems to upset him.

I didn’t create this thread to write a review of the film. What I want to do is start a discussion, based on the ideals put forward by the film. You don’t even need to have seen it to join in.

Is a truly democratic VC form attainable? Do you believe it’s possible? Does the film successfully show that it is, or do the inevitable limitations shown in the film show it to be an impossibility?

Here’s the link to Watkins’ essay about the film which will give you a clearer insight into what he was trying to achieve:

http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/commune.htm

And here’s an excerpt:

“During the filming the cast were also engaged in a collective experience, constantly discussing – between themselves, and with myself and members of the team led by Agathe Bluysen – what they would say, how they might feel, and how they would react to the events of the Commune which were about to be filmed.

Simultaneously, Marie-José Godin was preparing the young and older women who played the girls in the Catholic school in the rue Oberkampf and their supervising Sisters, and the two Catholic priests. The results of all of these discussions were then placed – or emerged spontaneously – within the scenes which were filmed in long, uninterrupted sequences, following the chronological order of the events of the Commune.

Most of the cast really liked this method of filming, for they found that it offered much more continuity of experience than the usual fragmented practice of filming short, disconnected scenes. Many of the people felt this whole process to be exciting and stimulating, quite unlike the preplanned and prescripted manner of making most films.

This process also enabled the cast to improvise, change their minds, relate to each other in actual discussions during the filming, etc. Many found this filming method to be dynamic and experiential, for it forced them to abandon pose and artifice, and led to an immediate self-questioning on contemporary society – which they had to confront on the spot"

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georgestapleton
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Jun 12 2011 14:09

I dunno the movie has been sitting on my computer for about three years. Its fucking 6 hours long not matter how democratic its production might have been, when does anyone get the chance to sit down and watch a 6 hour long movie?

On the whole set thing though I'm not sure if that is really all that democratic. All cinema involves an awareness that what you are being shown isn't the event but a conscious representation of the event. Whether that involves the representation being 'realistic' (as in the T Rex in jurassic park is realistic) or 'unrealistic' (as in the houses have no walls on the set in Dogville), the audience always knows that it is fake, but actively suspends belief in order for cinema to 'come alive'. The set thing in La Commune and Dogville seems to be more about showing explicitly the films artificiality in order to expose the 'real' active relation that the audience has the with the film and with the subject matter of the film. But then again as I said I haven't actually watched it because its 6 hours long.

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Malva
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Jun 12 2011 14:30

A better film about the Commune is the Russian avant-garde classic The New Babylon. Unfortunately there is only one decent version of it that was done in the nineties and you have to mail order, but if the idea of a video library goes ahead maybe I can upload it. Until then here is a clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_73R6hq0_0&feature=related

Unfortunately this clip doesn't show all the revolutionary stuff which makes up the rest of the film. But it gives you some idea.

I'm not so sure about Watkins on the Commune, I did watch it once but I have forgotten what it was like. I got the impression though that it rather downplayed the revolutionary content. Everyone looked really bored and sad, none of the passion and sense of empowerment that the people lived. My general impression was that it was recuperative but perhaps I need to rewatch it. I'd also agree about the stupid length of time.

Aflwydd
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Jun 13 2011 11:05
georgestapleton wrote:
I dunno the movie has been sitting on my computer for about three years. Its fucking 6 hours long not matter how democratic its production might have been, when does anyone get the chance to sit down and watch a 6 hour long movie?

I watched it in two parts. Better off doing that!

Quote:
On the whole set thing though I'm not sure if that is really all that democratic. All cinema involves an awareness that what you are being shown isn't the event but a conscious representation of the event.

What is amazing about the film is how much the actors get into it. By the end, they have been so caught up in the whole story behind the commune that you would think they were genuinely defending their lives.

As I have said to others, the film is so much about the Commune itself but about the relations between the people and the visual communication forms that we are exposed to daily. Watkins has been writing for years about the need to democratise what he calls the 'monoform' and this film is his experiment to show the possibilities of a new kind of media.

Quote:
Whether that involves the representation being 'realistic' (as in the T Rex in jurassic park is realistic) or 'unrealistic' (as in the houses have no walls on the set in Dogville), the audience always knows that it is fake, but actively suspends belief in order for cinema to 'come alive'. The set thing in La Commune and Dogville seems to be more about showing explicitly the films artificiality in order to expose the 'real' active relation that the audience has the with the film and with the subject matter of the film. But then again as I said I haven't actually watched it because its 6 hours long.

That's a good point.

I've watched some long films before, but Dogville felt the longest by a distance.

Malva wrote:
A better film about the Commune is the Russian avant-garde classic The New Babylon. Unfortunately there is only one decent version of it that was done in the nineties and you have to mail order, but if the idea of a video library goes ahead maybe I can upload it. Until then here is a clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_73R6hq0_0&feature=related

Unfortunately this clip doesn't show all the revolutionary stuff which makes up the rest of the film. But it gives you some idea.

I've just found it. I'll give it a watch at some point in the near future.

I'm not so sure about Watkins on the Commune, I did watch it once but I have forgotten what it was like. I got the impression though that it rather downplayed the revolutionary content. Everyone looked really bored and sad, none of the passion and sense of empowerment that the people lived. My general impression was that it was recuperative but perhaps I need to rewatch it. I'd also agree about the stupid length of time.

You have to remember that almost every actor was a complete amateur. And as the film progresses, you do seem them getting caught up in the whole event more and more. By the end, they are fully immersed.

However, it's an experiment and not meant to be strictly accurate. After all, there are televisions in the film! Even during the film, there's a long scene where the cast are out of character discussing the present day situation. To really understand what he was trying to achieve, reading his long essay on his website about the GAVM (global audiovisual media) is vital.

Thanks for replying! Have any of you watched the film 'libertarias' about the Spanish revolution? It sounds interesting and I have access to it so I am wondering whether it's worth the time?

Spikymike
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Nov 14 2015 15:38

The SPGB's Foster and Clayton would seem to agree with Aflwydd's assessment of Peter Watkin's film making approach in their two part article here:
www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2015/no-1334-octobe... and
www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2015/no-1335-novemb...

proletarian.
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Nov 16 2015 21:28

Of all the political films I've seen La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile 1975/76/79) is by far the best, it's another very long one though (three parts) and you may struggle to find it in English. It had been released on DVD though with subtitles.