Monday, 26 March 2007

See IT's contribution, and also:

The Chris Marker Kino Fist tonight was great (minus the severe chill): to all those who came to one, some, or all of them, talked to each other, read the magazine and so on - cheers! We adore you.

We might try and find another location that involves less pre-screening preparation in the future, and the eventual plan is to move somewhere more central (we are currently in discussion with a place near Waterloo that has a proper booze and entertainment licence and everything). Legal Kino Fist: trust me, the dirt will remain.

In the meantime, our next project is to hold a one-off Patrick Keiller screening with the deeply affable man himself in attendance. This will probably take place at Goldsmiths (New Cross). Details to follow.

A list of Things that Agitate the Heart

Some montage cells on Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat

‘Editing, one would hope, restores history’s polyphony. No place here for gratuitous linkages or mean spirited attempts at forcing people to contradict themselves (who hasn’t contradicted himself at least once?)’ (Chris Marker, 1977)

‘There are endless themes to film in Capital: the one we want to film is Marx’s method…we know now that the basic proposition of Capital (its goal) is to teach the worker how to think dialectically. To show the method of the dialectic.’ (Sergei Eisenstein, 1928)

Brothers! It starts with what is not a revolution, but its representation. This isn’t just any representation though: a voice tells us about the first time they saw Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and the familiar images fill the screen: the Tsarist soldiers advancing, the utter solidarity of the workers, the chop, cut, tear and roar of the editing, tinted Red by Marker to evoke not just the sepia of yesterday’s utopia, but to efface it yet more: make it familiar and strange. Then we see them making the same clenched fists, facing the same guns and bayonets (or CRS truncheons), the same gestures recurring. The voice in 1977 tells us that in 1967, his generation wanted their own 1917.
What we see isn’t 1917: it isn’t even the 1905 of the Potemkin mutiny in Odessa, a battle in a failed revolution whose ghost would take glorious revenge 12 years later. Then the montage shifts to the steps in Odessa where the famous massacre of the innocents was filmed, and an Intourist guide cheerfully talking about the attraction. Revolution is mediated two, three, fourfold. The question is: if a revolution has been transmitted through representation, and if the imitation of that representation is the image of revolution, does it stop being revolution? A Grin without a Cat’s answer is ‘NO!’

Methods of Montage. Irrespective of its opening with Eisenstein, in the fight between his ‘Kino Fist’ and Dziga Vertov’s ‘Kino Eye’, Marker is clearly a descendent of the latter. However, his work is one of the few genuine deployments of what Eisenstein considered cinema’s highest possible form. In his essays of the late 1920s he outlines the development of the method: Metric Montage, Rhythmic Montage, Tonal Montage, Overtonal Montage, and finally: Intellectual Montage. Eisenstein’s critics, then and afterwards, saw Intellectual Montage as confirmation of the dryness and aridity at the heart of Eisenstein’s theorising. On the contrary, Eisenstein was advocating an intellectual agitation no less fierce than the physical.
As he puts it, in terms rather more technocratic than Marker’s, ‘if under the influence of ‘jazz montage’ (the syncopated montage used in places in his October) one’s hands and knees rhythmically tremble, in the second case such a trembling, under the influence of a different degree of intellectual appeal, occurs in identically the same way through the tissues of the higher nerve systems of the thought apparatus’. As Marker asks (describing, in his own voice in the French version of the film, his inability to keep the camera still when filming the insurrection), ‘Why do the Images start to Tremble?’ Intellectual montage, as much as any other, is based on friction, and is physical. Eisenstein writes that this cinema will exploit the dialectical tension at the heart of this divide, not veer away from it in some utopian aufhebung. The intellectual cinema is kinaesthetic: somewhere where you feel what you are thinking and think what you are feeling. ‘Only an intellectual cinema has the power to resolve the dispute between ‘the language of logic’ and ‘the language of images’ – on the basis of a language of cinedialectics…a cinema with the utmost commitment to sensuality as well as investigation, and which draws upon its universal access to channels of action through visual, auditory and bio-motor stimuli’.
A fair description of what we have here. Images, played through filters and electronic distortion, chopped and reassembled, which offer immediate pleasure, soundtracked with electronic tonalities and sibilances providing psycho-sensual commentary, overlaid over (or is it vice-versa?) an allusive and formidably dense meditation on ‘the Third World War’ of 1967-77: one which, the Situationists thought, was a war against representation itself, which wouldn’t be over until the last bureaucrat was hung with the guts of the last capitalist.

Slow Motion. Marker must be the only director who has ever paid equal attention to the two antipodes of the Soviet cinema: the ferociously fast editing and agitation of the 1924-34 Leftist directors, and the meditative tracking shots and transcendental slowness of half a century later, in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Schematically, the cinema of World Revolution, and the cinema of Brezhnevian stagnation.
What links them is that the speed, whether fast or slow, is registered, never becomes something merely taken for granted: the tempo is all. The length of the montage cells, in the MTV version of kinetic montage, only lets up when it lingers over the platinum rims and the girls’ arses. Otherwise its motion can never slow, it can never use what the later Eisenstein described as ‘montage within the shot’: the becoming-montage of the cell/component itself. Marker’s montage is mostly careering, which makes the moments when it slows incredibly shocking. The scene where for several unedited minutes Japanese women from a village that had been poisoned by a company's dumping of waste in their water supply confront a suited shareholder, screaming with grief about their murdered sons: their furiousness and his immobility presented in uninterrupted footage. Or alternately, a long extract from Allende addressing a factory meeting, his patience before them, forcing the viewer to pause amid the melee, listen, evaluate.

A fireside chat with Fidel. Recently, on Hugo Chavez’s show Alo Presidente, its host received an unexpected caller. After a while its host twigged – ‘my God, it’s Fidel!’ He’d phoned in, presumably in order to inform its host that he wasn’t dead, or to talk about football, or whatever. If this film, in which, as with Eisenstein, the advancing crowd is the ‘hero’, has a ‘protagonist’ then it’s Fidel Castro. His repute as a militaristic Stalinist apparatchik is belied by footage, frequently inserted, from a film of Castro talking. Several things here are odd: his obvious shyness, his tendency to embarassedly hide his face after a particularly extravagant rhetorical flourish, his lengthy, explanatory mode of speech, and, frankly, the fact that he’s crouching in some grass during the whole performance.
This is in no way accidental: what this represents is a long-deceased mode of propaganda, a method which, like Eisenstein’s propaganda, is notable for the respect it gives to the recipient’s intelligence. The prototype here is actually Franklin Roosevelt’s radio fireside chats, where the head of state talks to you as an equal, explains complex political phenomena, goes on a bit. Fidel’s public appearances punctuate the film, and we see his obvious discomfort as he realises that power is slipping out of the hands of the likes of him, and back into the hands of the likes of Leonid Brezhnev. We see his torturous attempt to justify the crushing of the Czech humanist Communists, with a shrieking electronic drone reinforcing, commenting on (or providing) his discomfort; or we have a droll discussion of his nervous gesture of adjusting the microphones during speeches, then see him speaking in Moscow, wincing with horrified embarassment as he realises that these ones are stuck, immovable.

What is to be done? Much of the footage is taken from films made on the ground, and here the sources are frequently as remarkable as the montage that they eventually find themselves a cell of: some seem to be from the ‘Cine-Tracts’, the short films made quickly and edited in camera, and shown anonymously at meetings in May (Godard had to feature his own handwriting in his, presumably to stamp his identity as auteur even here). Marker had been working like this even before ’68, with A bientot, j’espere being a piece on the strikes of late ’67, followed by Critique/Autocritique, made with the strikers who disapproved of Marker's left-wing melancholia. One of the most fascinating components is William Klein’s Grands Soirs, Petits Matins. This is a film made on the streets of Paris in 1968, a montage of conversations.
Nothing really happens in Klein’s film: we see some fights with the CRS, the torched Stock Exchange, but this isn’t really the point, the real crux is everyone, ideologues, workers, students, schoolchildren, old men, all arguing – what do we do now?? Frequently the question is asked whether or not this is a revolution or not, and if it is, what they should do, seize the state, get the support of the army, not to mention what to do on the day after. But that isn’t all: there’s the voices, people who get up in the middle of huge crowds who explain that they haven’t spoken in public before and then go on to discuss the new society that they intend to create, their voices shaky but unafraid. Throughout there’s the sense that – isn’t revolution something that one might see represented, but doesn’t do? The shock of finding oneself in one: a way of dealing with this is to deny its existence, a train of thought that the Communist Party were all too willing to assist. Not that de Gaulle himself was in any doubt, as he fled Paris and begged the army for its support.

Televisionaries was Jillian Becker’s rather smug term to sum up the Red Army Fraction, a phrase taken up as a term of approval by Tom Vague in his appraisal of the ‘Baader-Meinhof Group’, who are in fact one of the groupuscules that turn up here and there in A Grin without a Cat: footage that would have been visceral to the 1977 viewer, at the time of the RAF’s endgame. After a description of a mock-‘Wanted’ poster for one of the Shah of Iran, whose visit to Berlin galvanised the German New Left, we see the real one for Ulrike Meinhof. Her fate was essentially that of a certain class, an intellectual Left doomed to suicidal confrontation or mere commentary: she was basically akin to a Maspero or Marker, a media intellectual and sympathiser with the students and workers of ’68, who gave up her lucrative career, her family, her life, in order to engage in praxis at its most extreme, unwilling to be a mere ‘commentator’ any longer, and accordingly earning the romantic respect of said commentators (‘for me, the terrorists are still the the inheritors’- Godard, 1980). Then we see women – an anonymous RAF member, then Meinhof herself – dragged along by German riot police, who try to present their faces to the camera. They struggle, desperately, not to become an image, and eventually fail.
The relationship of the Gauchiste to the media is a horribly conflicted one. It provides the images of revolt that they imitate, as in the rupture through repitition of the enacting of Potemkin, and yet its imitation can be horribly reactionary: the Jim Morrison posing of Andreas Baader for instance. David Caute’s 68: the Year of the Barricades cites a Black Panther, like those handing out the Little Red Book in A Grin without a Cat admitting that he’d watched too many films. But what is the alternative? To pretend the media doesn’t exist? To ignore it entirely and talk only to ‘our members’, as do even the most Left-wing Union leaders? Then again, television is not, ever, to be trusted: Marker’s dismissal of Watergate, over a montage of nonsensical US TV, is ‘it all happened on television’. The USAF bomber, cheerfully talking up the napalm he’s just spread over a Vietnamese village as if he’s a sports commentator.

‘A Montage of any old Trivia, taken up and Animated’ is how Eisenstein describes the methodology and the components of his mooted film of Marx’s Capital. Like Brecht, he knows that a picture of a factory tells us almost nothing about the factory itself, and instead its depiction must be made from fragments. His ‘Notes on Capital’ (also a source for Debord’s 1972 film of The Society of the Spectacle, which resembles A Grin Without a Cat in many respects) suggests that the montage cinema should take its cues from Marx’s method of dialectical juxtaposition, a method he likens to Ulysses: that it must ‘present the idea of exchange not by a depiction of the Stock Exchange, but by a thousand ‘little details’’. Lists. This is what we have in some of the finest moments of A Grin Without a Cat, as in an extraordinary chain which, over a Citroen bureaucrat posing, more explicitly than any of the Gauchistes here, the choice between workers' control and administered capitalism – shows us angled shots of factories and construction, a highway and the glacial, Corbusian new city, then advertising showing us the labour saving devices that accompanied the postwar settlement, then Marker’s ever-present quizzical Cats. Five years later in Sans Soleil, he will take as his exemplar of montage Sei Shonagon’s 9th century Pillow Book, a fragmentary construction made up of endless lists: in particular, ‘a list of things that quicken the heart’. In the future, he claims, everyone will make their own list of things that quicken the heart, ‘and poetry will be made by all.’

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Forwards, not Forgetting

Brechtian Productivism in an age of Mechanical Stagnation

Art forms also die. And the rotting corpse that is the theatre has, for the last 20 years or more, been involved in a comprehensive occlusion, distortion and demolition of the work of one of the only 20th century playwrights who attempted to keep it alive. But in that attempt, regardless of whether the theatre lives or dies, is a theory of the technological apparatus, and of production, that still speaks of demands that the proliferating media of today seem incapable of fulfilling. The theatre itself disdains these theories and these techniques. Why?

Round One: Godot vs. Galileo


‘Mr Keuner ran into Mr Muddle, a great fighter against newspapers. ‘I am a great opponent of newspapers. I don’t want any newspapers’, said Mr Muddle. Mr Keuner said ‘I am a greater opponent of newspapers. I want better newspapers.’
If newspapers are a means to disorder, then they are also a means to achieving order. It is precisely people like Mr Muddle who through their dissatisfaction demonstrate the value of newspapers. Mr Muddle thinks he is concerned with the worthlessness of today’s newspapers. In fact he is concerned with their worth tomorrow.
Mr Muddle thought highly of man and did not believe that newspapers could be made better, whereas Mr Keuner did not think very highly of man but did think that newspapers could be made better. ‘Everything can be made better’, said Mr Keuner, ‘except man.’

Brecht, Stories of Herr Keuner

A little juxtaposition might help elucidate this little conundrum. 2006 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett, as well as being the 50th anniversary of the death of Bertolt Brecht. The difference between the receptions of these two anniversaries is striking. While Beckett was beset with tributes, seasons, retrospectives, those chiselled features looking out from arts centres all over, Brecht was very grudgingly acknowledged. A few productions have appeared, and each one of them has had the same mission statement: to take the Brechtian out of Brecht, to extract from it all that pernicious theorising and return it to the cathartic, realist stage. From the National Theatre’s Life of Galileo, which explicitly tried to make a regular middlebrow tale of compromised liberalism out of the alienation effects, to a Young Vic Big Brecht Fest which went so far as to expunge any works that post-dated the development of Brechtian ‘theory’ in 1926-7, there has been an unrelenting attack on Brecht’s technique- which usually accompanies rhetoric about what a Great Artist he was despite all this.

Brecht knew that Beckett was essentially his dramatic inverse, and was planning a ‘response’ play to Waiting for Godot at the time of his death in 1956. The Brechtian and the Beckettian are both paths that the post-war theatre could have taken, and it seems he at least was aware of this. Of course, since the 70s neither direction has been followed, but never mind. Nonetheless, while Adorno in his 1962 attack on Brecht and Sartre’s ‘Commitment’ argued that while these aspiring agitators could be easily reified and turned into cliché, Beckett or Kafka, ‘autonomous’ artists, could resist such treatment. The reverse has actually proved to be the case. What is perceived as Beckett’s depiction of a grim, sardonic struggle against an immutable human condition has an obvious appeal for a stagnant, fatalist and depoliticised terminal capital (alternatively, go to post-Stalinist Prague to find Kafka’s name emblazoned on anything with a price tag) while Brecht’s insistence on the critical stance is utterly anathema to its tamed culture. And this is usually stated in terms of pleasure, or enjoyment: the Brechtian technique is allegedly something that ensures aridity, its laying bare of the device merely leading to a dry formalism. It’s no fun. ‘Negation use, consider revising’ as Microsoft Word will tell you.

Really, Brecht has so little going for him here it’s almost comic: Marxist, German, Hegelian, his innovations summed up as either the rather grand sounding ‘Epic Theatre’ or theorised in imposingly Teutonic terms as the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ which is seemingly designed to be oppressive: whether you translate it as ‘alienation’ or ‘distanciation’ or ‘estrangement’, it isn’t a phrase that promises a whole load of fun. But what is so frustrating about this is that it simply doesn’t square with any of what either Beckett or Brecht actually wrote. Beckett’s Late Review devotees seem to have an idea of him as some sort of amalgam of Zeno the Stoic and Father Ted, yet one can’t imagine Tom Paulin or Bonnie Greer relishing being assaulted by the panic attack of Not I or wading through the thick, impenetrable tangle of repetition and horror of How it Is. Beckett is not fun. For all his virtues, he is a supremely difficult writer, almost all of his mature works extremely forbidding: one might extract a quote or two from Worstward Ho, but few try reading the bastard thing. To be crass, people think they like Beckett and don’t, and think they don’t like Brecht- but, we will argue, they do.

Brecht’s works, curiously enough, are absolutely full of singing, dancing, rhythm, laugh-out-loud jokes, wickedly biting irony, and perhaps most importantly, a refusal to ever be boring. The obvious pleasures of the Kurt Weill assisted musicals of 1927-33 (Seven Deadly Sins, Threepenny Opera, Happy End, Mahogonny) almost seem to go without saying, their songs’ persistent presence in pop culture ever since being proof enough of that: yet this was the exact period of the development and deployment of the Marxist-Modernist Brechtian apparatus of interruption and interjection, the placards and projections that everyone seems to so object to. Even the lehrstucke (‘learning plays’) his most stripped down and didactically severe pieces – most notoriously the ‘wild roar’ (Adorno) of The Measures Taken – have an extremism, a starkness and violence, that prevent them from ever becoming mere academic experiments. So, we will have to ask, what is it in the Brechtian conceptual apparatus that makes people want to separate it from the work? Why is this device that must be laid bare so forbidding to the arbiters of taste? And more to the point, what are these theories, how do they work, and what do they have to do with film and the media rather than the stage?

Round Two: Who’s Afraid of the Verfremdungseffekt?


‘They are the enemies of production. Production makes them uncomfortable. You never know where you are with production. Production is the unforeseeable’

(Brecht, on Socialist Realism)

Like any theory worth using, the Brechtian Methodologies morphed and changed to respond to new conditions, but perhaps most interesting for our purposes here is the period from the mid 20s to mid 30s, when the development of Brecht’s technique was explicitly linked with Technik (i.e. the German term for Technology). Walter Benjamin defined the alienation effect, the form of the Epic Theatre, as first and foremost an engagement with the new reified art forms of the 20th century, and specifically film and radio. In ‘Theatre and Radio’ a piece for the Blatter des Hessischen Landstheaters in 1932, Benjamin writes of the mass form of radio, its ability to reach a greater audience than even the most populist theatre, and that the very technological form of the radio itself gives it potentialities which the stage can’t approach.
‘Not only a more advanced technical stage, but also one in which technology is more evident. Unlike the theatre, it does not have a classical age behind it. The masses it grips are much larger; above all, the material elements on which its apparatus is based are closely intertwined with the interests of its audience. Confronted with this, what can the theatre offer? The use of live people – and apart from this, nothing.’
There are two possible responses to this. One is that of Great Artists, where this simply doesn’t matter because of the eternal nature of the human condition. The other response is to acknowledge that the theatre can’t compete with cinema and radio, but can however debate with them. And it does this, crucially, via Montage. The alienation effect is
‘Nothing but a retranslation of the methods of montage – so crucial in radio and film – from a technological process to a human one. It is enough to point out that the principle of the Epic Theatre, like that of montage, is based on interruption’
And via that interruption, the listener has to ‘take up an attitude towards the events on stage’: the laying bare of the device induces a stance. An early play of Brecht’s featured the banner ‘DON’T STARE SO ROMANTICALLY’: instead the audience has to assume a critical engagement.

Benjamin develops this two years later in ‘The Author as Producer’, where the properties of this montage are further discussed: ‘the superimposed element disrupts the context in which it is inserted’. So here we have a picture of the Epic Theatre where the Verfremdungseffekt is essentially an adaptation to new technological realities, and a harnessing of them specifically for the theatre (but not exclusively so) in order to disrupt its attempts to claim that the world goes on as before. The theory can in fact be adapted for the use in Film and in Radio: as Brecht was doing at the time, producing with collectives of collaborators, composers and designers radio productions such as The Flight of the Lindberghs. Here the most impressive new technological achievement of the time, the transatlantic flight, is made into a collaboration between collective producers building the plane, each one of whom is 'Lindbergh'; or in stage plays, an apparatus is introduced making prominent use of radio, newspaper headlines or projections of photographs and statistics.

Brecht’s theory and practice here was closely linked to two Soviet theoretical innovations, produced by the circle around the journal LEF. This was the far Left of Constructivism, usually calling themselves ‘Productivists’ (in the sense of productive, producing, and the product). First of all the notion of ‘making strange’, developed by the Formalist literary theorists Viktor Shklovsky and Osip Brik, who were also prolific screenplay writers for directors like Pudovkin and Room; and the development by Sergei Tretyakov and others of the notion of the Operative writer who is at once a sociologist, photographer, economist, filmmaker, producer, master of the new apparatus; and the linked experiments like the ‘Two-Way Newspaper’. The producers becoming artists and the artists becoming producers. Brecht wrote in 1927 that the new technological forms had just this radical potential for mass access and communication. In ‘The Radio as a Communications Apparatus’ he writes:

‘Among the obligations of the state’s highest official is the job of informing the nation regularly by means of the radio about his activities and their justification. The task of the radio does not end, however, with the transmission of these reports.
Beyond this, it must organise the collection of reports, i.e. it must transform the reports of those who govern into responses to the questions of those governed. Radio must make exchange possible.
Should you consider this utopian, then I ask you to reflect on the reasons why it is utopian.’

Capitalism has to prevent this apparatus from falling into the hands of all, a radical democratisation of cultural production disrupting the divide between art and life upon which the supremacy of its culture industry depends. The Epic Theatre can’t redistribute the apparatus by itself – but what it can do is present it in an objective manner, show its workings and effects as what they are, to resist the temptation of using it to represent reality or history rather than participate in it. He writes in ‘Suggestions for the Director of Radio Broadcasting’ that because the radio’s apparatus is portable, mass-produced, by its nature not exclusive, to attempt representation with it is inherently absurd. In the case of cinema, ‘I have seen with distress how the Egyptian pyramids and the Indian Rajahs’ palaces move to Neubabelsburg (the studios in Potsdam that were the centre of the 1920s German film industry) in order to be filmed by an apparatus that a man can slip comfortably into his backpack.’

The great mistake here is to see in this an inherent hostility to mass produced culture, and to the productions of that film industry. On the contrary, while the European cinema strained for Art, the American gangster film or slapstick comedy was already devising an appropriate form for the new functional media. Take for instance the 1936 fragment ‘V-Effects of Chaplin’, a little comment on the employment of alienation effects in The Gold Rush (1925):
Eating the boot (with proper table manners, removing the nail like a chicken bone, the index finger pointing outward).
The film’s mechanical aids:
Chaplin appears to his starving friend as a chicken.
Chaplin destroying his rival and at the same time courting him.

So the Verfremdungseffekt is here expressed by gesture, movement, the anti-naturalism producible by the human body itself (the Brechtian gestus, what Benjamin described as the actor’s critical stance towards his character) as well as by the technological apparatus. The Hollywood film, at its least middlebrow edges, is capable of being just as jarring as the Epic Theatre. In the scenes from The Gold Rush referenced above, a situation of poverty and abjection is Made Strange, while at the same time Made Universal. The absurdity of the situation is conveyed by the anti-naturalist gesture, and by the morphing of man into chicken achievable only via the device.

According to Hanns Eisler, Brecht disdained music in favour of the invention ‘Misuc’: a response to a Beethoven that ‘always reminds me of paintings of battles’, and ‘music ceremoniously produced in concert halls’, replacing it with a din that is ‘extremely close to the people’. And as any contemporary production of Brecht will tend to renege on all of this, the best place to encounter it today is on record, in the interpretations of Brecht’s songs by anyone from Lotte Lenya to Nina Simone, the Young Gods to Ernst Busch. This is fitting, as pop had its own Brechtian moment in the late 70s and early 80s, much as Cinema did in the late 60s and early 70s (note that both were in periods of intense political struggle). Some of the most straightforward statements of the Brechtian method are on the subject of music, whether in the ‘mass songs’ that he wrote for the Popular Front of the 30s with Eisler, or in his writings on film music. In 1942, while working on Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die, Brecht wrote a short programmatic piece, ‘On Film Music’, as a contribution to Adorno and Eisler’s study Composing for the Films. This contains one of the most succinct statements of technique and technik. Under the heading ‘Function of Innovations’ Brecht writes of a technique ‘directed mainly against the narcotic function of art’, and one which of necessity has to be based on ‘Excitement – without which theatre today can hardly be imagined’. The use of music in this was totally paramount, for the same reason that the Musical, at its most extreme (Dennis Potter, Lars von Trier) is the culture industry’s most truly Brechtian form.
‘Music had the task of protecting the audience from a state of ‘trance’. It did not serve the enhancement of existing or anticipated effects but rather interrupted or manipulated them. So if there were songs in a play, it was not as if the story ‘dissolved into song’. The people in the play did not break into song. On the contrary, they openly interrupted the story. They assumed a pose for singing and presented the song in a way that did not fully correspond to the situation.’
Then the audience would be taught not to trust what they see: they can ‘discover the emptiness and conventionalism of certain events which the actors had played with unshakeable seriousness.’

Round Three: The Threepenny Lawsuit and the Threepenny Film


‘The Russian writer Osip Brik noted very cleverly that Brecht’s works are always court cases, in which Brecht proves himself to have litigation-mania’

Sergei Tretyakov, ‘Bert Brecht’ (1934)

So what happened when the Brechtian – well, when Brecht himself – was unleashed on cinema? Although in his quasi-expressionist youth Brecht had worked on unproduced screenplays and even directed a short film, the first opportunity for his mature theory to be tested was in an adaptation of his 1928 musical The Threepenny Opera. This was a cobbled together melange made up of a title of Lion Feuchtwanger’s, a translation and rewriting by Elisabeth Hauptmann of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, plus adaptations by Brecht of that play’s original songs, poems by Francois Villon and Rudyard Kipling(!), and even some ‘original’ work, all honed via Kurt Weill’s self-deconstructing music into a viciously witty depiction of amoral capitalism. Famous variety tale of murder, rape and general gangstaism ‘Mack the Knife’ hails from here, and was included specifically as a measure against an actor who was making his villain rather too worthy of identification: better to make him ‘violate an old woman in her slumbers’ for cash rather than let him become a straightforward hero. This chaotic, disjunctive and discordant mess of syncopated cynicism and mercenary amorousness (see ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’) was the most popular play in the Weimar Republic. A vindication, if ever there were, that works created in the new manner could connect just as well, if not better, with a mass audience.

This already deeply hybrid work then gets very complicated indeed. Though the work was contemporaneous with Brecht’s turn towards Marxism and development of Epic Theatre, by the time the film was put into development in 1930 Brecht and his collaborators had shifted artistically and politically to the extreme left, and this was going to be for them a way of testing the new apparatus’ potentialities for both political efficacy and formal rupture. A screenplay was written, entitled The Bruise: a Threepenny Film, which quite explicitly called for the montage experiments of Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Vertov as well as a Gestural, anti-naturalist acting style indebted to Chaplin or Keaton, as opposed to the leisurely pace, fluid camera and subtle, insinuating acting styles advocated by the German Expressionist art film: one of whose number, G.W Pabst, fresh from the Weimar-Goth classic Pandora’s Box, was slated to direct. Needless to say, Brecht’s treatment was rejected, and a new screenplay was written partly by Bela Balazs, a prominent theorist of film at the time. Balazs is worth investigating here as another inverse of the Verfremdungseffekt, especially seeing as the fatuous affirmationism of Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy last year marked an attempt to rehabilitate him. Put bluntly, Balazs advocated that film learn from Art, that film become Art. Balazs’ invitation to show and discuss some French art films (Rene Clair, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir) in Moscow in the late 20s elicited a response from Eisenstein: ‘Bela Forgets the Scissors’. These works, for all their alleged innovation, really returned film to the canvas, and to the artistic spectacle, precisely because they ignored the principle of interruption and of montage. For Eisenstein, as for Brecht, they weren’t Useful.

Before going on to look at the film itself, we should have a look at the case Brecht assembles in his Threepenny Lawsuit. This tract, assembled after Brecht had already lost his lawsuit against the film’s producers, has very little to do with Pabst’s film: whether or not Brecht had ever actually watched it is a moot point. In fact, it is probably the most sweeping, manifesto-like statement of the Epic Theatre in its Productivist moment. Its first target is those who, over the lawsuit, claimed that Brecht and Weill should have expected the treatment they got: film is a commodity, is not art, and as such any attempt to try and make it so (which Brecht, as a noted playwright working in the cinema, must have been doing) was doomed to failure. These people want to
‘From the outset deprive us of the apparatuses which we need in order to produce, because more and more this kind of producing will supersede the present one.’
An alternative to either this sulky aestheticism or a total surrender to the demands of capital can only be enabled by an expansion of the apparatus: in a short passage pregnant with potentiality Brecht imagines that the Lehrstucke (learning play) participants (usually active Communists, staged anywhere other than a conventional stage) would all have to have their own personal cinema apparatus. The freedom outside the new technology is meaningless. ‘To say to the intellectual worker that he is free to renounce the new work tools is to assign to him a freedom outside the production process’, and hence utterly neutered and of no threat to things as they are.

Then there is the Third Way: film as art. This is based on a form that ‘establishes itself against the apparatuses with a vengeance’, the filmed theatre that Eisenstein feared the development of sound could create. ‘He violates the apparatuses with his ‘art’. This is linked in with the belief that if something is ‘faithfully depicted’, then it is in some way able to be critical, that representation can be critique. In an allusion to the lovingly shot machinery of the photographer Renger-Patzsch, he writes that a photograph of a factory ‘reveals almost nothing about these institutions’. A more bastard form is needed. Here, the forms produced by the culture industry’s disruptive wing are again a way of employing the apparatus, and against the claims of the art film he writes ‘the masses’ bad taste is rooted more deeply in reality than the intellectuals’ good taste.’ Cinema constantly exhibits a potentiality that, for all its employment as a mere money-making machine, can be turned on its head. Its essentially collective production is an exemplar of that: ‘it is the essence of capitalism and not something generally valid that ‘unique’ and ‘special’ artefacts can only be produced by individuals and collectives only bring forth standardised mass commodities.’ What if the collective and mass form could create something ‘unique’?

In one of the very few allusions to the actual film that resulted from this debacle, it is claimed that Pabst, as an artist seems to have ‘the right to stupidity, which is usually extended to poets, painters, musicians etc, and is in fact more of an obligation’. 76 years later, a look at Pabst’s film reveals it as a more complex and murky work than Brecht would credit (if indeed he ever saw it), although it is a perfect example of what happens to these works when the theory is stripped out. According to Tretyakov, Pabst told Brecht that he wanted to make ‘a beautiful fairytale’ out of The Threepenny Opera, and this is exactly what he did. On just one of those huge mimetic sets in Potsdam that so amused Brecht, this time of a Dickensian London rather than the Pyramids, is spread out a haunted landscape of passageways and posters, smog and alleys, rats and dirt, brothels and palaces: more or less an estrangement of Weimar Berlin itself, although crucially the illusionistic nature of this is never alluded to, and the device stays resolutely unbared. The film featured many members of Brecht’s collective, and the divergence of their acting styles with Pabst’s (sur)realist mise-en-scène is peculiarly fascinating. A terrific Carola Neher as Polly Peachum is all gesture, whether dismissing her band of gangsters or acquiring a proto-Thatcher pomp as she becomes a bank manager: sweeps of the hand, cocks of the head are what mark out her performance, for all Pabst’s focus on her pulchritude via the frequent close-ups. Ernst Busch’s street singer is wonderfully sardonic, and Lotte Lenya’s moment where on her own in the brothel she sings her still utterly chilling fantasy of class war and gory revenge ‘Pirate Jenny’ is shiveringly powerful. Pabst creates a seductively eerie filmworld, and one which does in its way exploit the new apparatus (all those lingering tracking shots, a regular feature of the art cinema). There’s only really one major problem with it. It’s boring.

There are several reasons for the inertia and longeurs of the film, and many of these are precise consequences of its occlusion of the Brechtian. Anything that contradicted the tangibility of the mimetic city that Pabst had built was anathema. It’s a mistake to see this as it’s usually posited, as a merely political question: Brecht’s expansion of the 1928 play into a general indictment of capitalism is actually retained by Pabst, who was at this point a committed socialist. But what he couldn’t countenance was the way in which The Bruise or the original play was so doggedly unreal: he cut over half of Weill’s songs (so he actually won his part of the lawsuit) as people don’t just break into song, do they? So somehow they have to be inserted into a realist narrative, so that they become static: rather than interrupting the narrative, a character will stand stock still and sing a song to occasion. The avoidance of montage, meanwhile, means that the film can start to stagnate, to ossify, and to induce the trance that the theorists of Making Strange most feared: the viewer is drugged by the slow, passive foggy drag of Fritz Arno Wagner’s camera through the fantasy London, and rather than being made to think or to engage, and rather than being excited, is induced to dream. When the film’s final reconciliation of the gangster, the capitalist and the state occurs, the effect isn’t agitational – it’s fatalistic. Without the theory the disruptive effect is neutered.

Round Four: A Short Course in Realism from the Perspective of the Police


‘Even if we saw the sun was shining
On the street and on the field
We could never really think that
This was truly our own world’

‘Solidarity Song’ from Kuhle Wampe (1932)

The first 15 minutes of the film that the Brecht collective made a year later in response, Kuhle Wampe, are like being in a different century, seem to be using an entirely different apparatus to Pabst’s film. First we have a stark intertitle, a montage of newspaper headlines, then we are thrown into a montage of factories and tenements, which, as Adorno and Eisler would later elucidate, had to be accompanied by a music that would not induce a picturesque aestheticism, a Hovis advert depiction of proletarian essentialism. Instead the music is sharp, scything, desperate. Then, intercut with this dilapidated city are hordes of the unemployed on bicycles, shots of their wheels, their faces as they search all over Berlin for work. Then one of the unemployed arrives home. The desperation slows, and is replaced by an unbearable inertia. A family argument, a procession of ‘get on yer bike’ clichés. Then our unemployed protagonist – the nearest thing we have had so far to a point of identification – takes off his watch and throws himself out of the window.

The way that politics and aesthetics intersected here is interesting. To the Censor who banned the film, this sudden suicide was proof of a Communist mendacity and avant-garde disdain for the human. The man was not depicted as a full human being. He was a type. The Censor, according to Brecht’s account, had said
‘As artists you must forgive me the expression we learn too little about him, but the consequences are of a political nature and force me to object to the film’s release. Your film proposes that suicide is typical, that it is not simply this or that (pathologically disposed) individual but rather the fate of an entire social class…no, gentlemen, you have not behaved as artists, not here. You were not interested in showing the shocking fate of an individual, which no one would prevent you from doing….Good God, the actor does it as if he were showing how to peel cucumbers’
This, of course, would have been seen as a total vindication. Brecht wryly notes ‘we had the unpleasant sensation of being caught red handed’.

The extreme hybridity of Kuhle Wampe has ever really been followed up since, in cinema or elsewhere. In just over an hour, we have here first an experiment in avant-garde montage and music: the alienation effects extending to cut-ups of decidedly experimental ‘Misuc’ over advertising and strangely threatening children (as a character contemplates an unwanted pregnancy), then second we have a kitchen sink drama: one of the collective here, Ernst Ottwald, was one of the ‘proletarian novelists’ of the late 20s, who included factography and sociological analysis in their narratives, much to the chagrin of Socialist Realists, and the depiction of working class life is extremely rare in being critical without patronising. The older members of the family at the centre of the play are beset with phrases and automatic reponses to events that stop them from ever having to truly think about their situation. Their tiny flat, and subsequently their tent in the film’s titular camp, is full of phantasmagorical objects, nick-nacks and shoddy Imperial remnants: leftovers of the bourgeoisie. This isn’t presented in the manner of a sniffy disdain for their bad taste, but its absurdity is calmly laid out. Their inability to make the connections between their fate and what goes on outside is encapsulated beautifully in the scene where the father laboriously reads from the newspaper a lurid article on the erotic adventures of Mata Hari, while the mother writes out a shopping list, her terror at her inability to make ends meet depicted through a montage of price tags and consumer goods.

Third, we have here a propaganda film on two fronts. Through the depiction of a Communist festival there is a demonstration of working class power; and through the escape of the film’s central character (played by Hertha Thiele) from a stifling, lumpen environment, there is a depiction of the radicalisation of alltagsleben. A politicised everyday life necessitates a new sexual politics, and with the help of her more committed friends, she is able to escape the future of drudgery that is usually reserved for women of her class. Then, fourth, we have an argument in a U-Bahn train. This is a precedent to one of the better elements in the Socialist Realist cinema of today, an analogue to the scene in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom where a room full of people discuss the nationalisation of agriculture without (remarkably) it becoming tedious. A political argument with wit, cut and thrust, inducing the audience to think about the issues critically rather than accept the director’s perspective. So in a public spat over coffee being burnt in South America, there are absurdist non-sequiturs, political agitation, and a variety of perspectives critically evaluated. The interruption ceases in this scene, but in order to induce thought rather, as with Pabst, than to occlude it.

The most remarkable thing about Kuhle Wampe though is the sheer joy of the film. In a similar (only so much less bombastic) manner to Eisenstein’s theory of the Montage of Attractions, where agitational cinema is achieved via a panoply of exciting effects, the film’s full-to-bursting turnover of styles and effects, wit and pathos, kitchen sink realism and formal experimentation keep it for the most part in a state of continuous agitation and libidinal charge. The scenes from the Communist sports festival are key here. Eisler’s music shifts from its peculiar special effects and grimly sweeping themes to stirring songs, stridently belted out by the impossibly poignant baritone of Ernst Busch, the ‘Red Orpheus’ (who also plays the male lead, an apolitical mechanic), which speak of movement, participation, of learning in preparation for taking power. The difference between the mass festival here and that filmed by Riefenstahl later in the decade is so huge it’s almost comic. Everyone is jostling, talking to each other, discussing, thinking and acting at once. These are the inheritors of history, and the future, marching ‘forwards, not forgetting’.

Conclusion: Alienation Affects


‘There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right?
I can sing the singing, I can think the thinking, but you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir.’

Philip Marlowe, in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986)

‘I have feelings only when I have a headache- never when I am writing: for then I think.’

Except, they were not the future. The overwhelming tragedy of what would happen to these people within a few years is inescapable: Ernst Busch would survive the Nazi camps, but much of the supporting cast would not; while Ernst Ottwald (like Carola Neher), as a refugee from Nazism in the USSR, would be ‘purged’ by the end of the decade by Stalin. When these collectives reconstituted themselves after the war, usually in a critical alliance with Stalinism, there would be a new scepticism and melancholy about the potentialities of the late Weimar era’s politico-aesthetic co-ordinates. A haunting song by Brecht and Eisler from 1955, ‘The Way the Wind Blows’ is a meditation on the sheer disappointment of the fate of the apparatuses themselves: today ‘production and seduction can now be mentioned in the selfsame breath’, while the workers are beset by a media which ‘tells them what to do and say’, and ‘are so shy of action’ (except of course against Stalinism in East Berlin in 1953), that they are left to ‘take their basic pleasures’ where they can; while the Party, the centre of Brecht’s most jarring and disjunctive works, from The Measures Taken to Kuhle Wampe, which should supposedly be able to advocate a way out, is cut off from the workers. But what is advocated here is still essentially the same measure. There’s no hermeticism, no retreat, for all the air of weariness: to ‘go out where the people go’ is the only way out.

If Brecht was sceptical of the efficacy of the Productivist apparatus by the 50s, half a century later we should be even more wary. Soon before he died, Brecht spoke of how ‘all that remains of the Verfremdungseffekten is the ‘effects’, stripped of their social application, stripped of their point.’ While the theatre might totally disdain it in favour of realism, you can find this all over the 21st century cultural-political landscape: a kind of cynical Brechtian where the alienation effect’s insistence on the stepping in and out of roles is a way of avoiding ever actually saying anything, of ever committing: the ‘postmodern pathology’ of someone like Robbie Williams or Tony Blair (an association made intriguingly by Mark Fisher) resides in their utter inability to step back in after stepping out of Realism. Likewise, watch any video on MTV Base and see a kinetic montage enlisted in the service of slack-jawed ogling. This version of Brechtian technique is never truly dissonant or disjunctive, and is able to exist only because of the absence of two important components of the Epic Theatre’s Apparatus. First, the absence of the democratisation of the apparatuses, and second the absence of the political, educational project.

The first of these two, like the alienation effect, does have a strange presence in current mass culture. What is MySpace if not an utterly degenerated version of the LEFists and Tretyakov’s Two Way Newspaper? It is a mistake to assume that mass access to a means of cultural production necessarily results in an interesting product. When everyone is saying nothing we haven’t really moved beyond the point where only the elite can say nothing. This is because of the absence of another element of the theoretical apparatus: the Lehre of the Lehrstucke, the insistence on learning and education. The Productive writer for the two way newspaper or the radio of ‘exchange’ has to become an expert in everything from economics to photography to gesture, and is never allowed to be a mere dilettante. However, these technologies themselves have far more potential than they ever had in 1927. A radio apparatus or a film camera then was, for all the proselytising, essentially ungainly and expensive. Now, a huge quantity of people have some kind of means of cultural production at their fingertips, whether via their cameraphones, cheap DV cameras, blogs, easily stealable music making programmes like Fruity Loops. That the majority of what is produced by these forms is utterly inane is not necessarily always going to be the case. Capitalism is again mistaking its conditions for eternal ones.

What, then, if all these fragments of the Brechtian apparatus are extant and ineffectual, would it look like if they were combined and used in a manner befitting their democratising, agitational potential? Well, for one: the Scenius of Kingston, Jamaica in the 70s. Here you had a means of production - cheap 4-track studios, effects pedals and the manipulation of tape – which was technologically advanced and accessible; and a means of distribution, on the shoddily pressed 7 inch single or dubplate. This technologically disjunctive music is then used as communication, in essentially the same manner as the two-way newspaper: much as with Chuck D’s perception of Hip Hop as ‘Black CNN’ (also, its no coincidence that perhaps the most terrifyingly powerful version of Brecht on record is Nina Simone’s version of ‘Pirate Jenny’, relocating its class war to a ‘crummy Southern town’). And as this was a period of heightened political struggle, this communication frequently had a fierce agitational urgency: Brecht and Eisler would have given their teeth to have written something like Dennis Brown’s ‘What about the Half’. History is challenged, the familiar is made strange, thought about what is apparently self-evident is advocated. The potential is all still there, in every technologically advanced corner of the world (i.e., all of it) for the apparatus to be restarted. Without forgetting, we could again be marching forwards out of something which, no matter how much it might be normalised, how much it might co-opt us, ‘we know is not our world’.

Monday, 5 March 2007

kino fist IV: Genet

90 Wallis Road
Hackney Wick
11th March
3pm (film to start at around 3.30), £1
tea, coffee, food, etc.