Revolutionary Mode

Considering the anarchist cinema of the 21st century
by Richard Porton  posted February 10, 2009
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

Since anarchism is a notoriously difficult term to define, it should not be surprising that the concept of "anarchist cinema" is equally elusive. Just as internecine conflicts between anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-individualists, and anarcho-communists complicate efforts to reduce anarchism to a monolithic ideology, there is no consensus as to whether anarchist filmmaking is more a literal-minded matter of content (e.g. documentaries on anti-authoritarian activism or biopics on heroic figures from the past like "anarchist martyrs" Sacco and Vanzetti or Buenaventura Durruti) or an idiosyncratic style (e.g. the bold lyricism of avant-gardists like Jean Vigo). Even Stuart Christie, the well-known British anarchist writer, activist, and avid movie enthusiast, confessed to The Guardian that some films made and produced by anarchists are often "very boring indeed."

Curiously enough, nearly a decade into the 21st century, caricatures of anarchist violence in popular culture mirror misconceptions that prevailed a hundred years ago. In 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt railed against the anarchist peril, the yellow press excoriated the anti-authoritarian left as nothing more than foreign vermin. This paranoid era provides a partial backdrop for Aleksandar Hemon’s recent novel The Lazarus Project; the journalist-hero, who investigates the still-notorious case of the 1908 murder of a Jewish immigrant, and apparent anarchist, by the Chicago chief of police, looks back at those benighted times and proclaims that the 20th century "war against anarchism was much like the current war on terror—funny how old habits never die." Hemon’s protagonist cites an early-20th-century editorial cartoon "depicting an outraged Statue of Liberty kicking a cage full of degenerate, dark-faced anarchists bloodthirstily clutching knives and bombs."

In the wake of 9/11 and the ongoing "war on terror," an implicit conflation of the longstanding revulsion toward anarchists, and more recent antipathies toward real and imagined terrorist threats, has come to the fore. Many reviews of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight referred to Heath Ledger's Joker as an "anarchist," even though this character, who blithely threatens large swaths of the population with annihilation, is merely branded an "agent of chaos" within the film. From a more complex, albeit muddled, point of view, another comic book film, James McTeigue's V for Vendetta (2005), blends the anarchist perspective of Alan Moore (who wrote the "graphic novel" that inspired the film; illustrations were provided by David Lloyd) and a jaundiced post-9/11 critical orientation. A commentary on the Thatcherite 1980s, Moore’s dystopian fantasy fleshes out the legacy of Thatcher’s repressive regime. Ubiquitous closed-circuit TV cameras (which in fact became pervasive in Blair and Brown’s Britain) are here emblematic of a neo-fascist mania for total surveillance that evokes both Orwell and the excesses of MI5. McTeigue’s well-intentioned adaptation angered Moore because he believed that the filmmakers' decision to impose post-9/11 concerns onto his narrative transformed Vendetta's anarchist impetus into a more palatably mainstream liberal movie. In Moore's vision, V., the altruistic rebel in a Guy Fawkes mask, explicitly evokes the anarchist tradition of "propaganda by the deed"— a precept associated with solitary acts of terrorism in the popular imagination but actually linked by serious 19th-century proponents like Errico Malatesta to concerted efforts to foment social revolution.

While Moore even lends V. some dialogue paraphrased from an early, pre-anarchist Bakunin tract in which the creative impulse is inextricable from the destructive urge, McTeigue's film is less anchored in the anti-authoritarian tradition but instead takes Moore’s premise as a departure point to flog a laundry list of standard left-liberal demands. Although Moore and the a for anarchy website, which led the anarchist charge in the U.S. against the Hollywood adaptation, presumably share the contempt of McTeigue and screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski for the Patriot Act and homophobia, they were less entranced with the film's propensity to use an incendiary allegory from another era for ends that were deemed either murky or merely reformist. For these critics, the film’s culminating event, the bombing of the Houses of Parliament, resides in an ahistorical void. From a much different vantage point, Lewis Call, writing in the academic journal Anarchist Studies, hails McTeigue's film for its exemplary advocacy of "postmodern anarchism" and terms the destruction of Parliament ("a curiously minor event in the Moore/Lloyd comic") a salutary critique of the "excesses of state power." To a certain extent, the disparity between Moore’s hostility to the film version and Call’s "postmodern" enthusiasm comes down to whether one insists, with purist intransigence, that Hollywood inevitably co-opts radical aspirations or that "if we use consumer capitalism to critique capitalism we are only making use of the practical use of the existing instruments in order to transcend the existing order of things—a very anarchist proposition."

Even though anti-globalization protests at the 1999 convocation of the World Trade Organization in Seattle brought the new anarchist activism to the attention of Americans during the early post-Cold War era, popular culture proved reticent and has only recently registered a response, albeit a feeble one, to these events. While excellent documentaries such as This Is What Democracy Looks Like (Jill Friedberg and Rick Rowley, 2000) provided comprehensive analyses of the WTO events, Stuart Townsend’s conspicuously earnest Battle in Seattle (2007) attempted to explain the intricacies of anti-corporate protest to a wider audience. Unfortunately, although Townsend cites The Battle of Algiers and Medium Cool as influences, his film, as critics pointed out, frequently resembles a slightly more enlightened version of Paul Haggis's Crash.

As in Haggisland, a grab bag of strangers collides and endures privation while learning prefabricated life lessons. Although the travails of a harried liberal mayor (based loosely on former Seattle mayor Paul Schell), a world-weary NGO representative, and a cop who regrets pummeling a protester need not concern us, the depiction of the activists, particularly a feisty anarchist named Lou (played with requisite amounts of anger and spunk by Michelle Rodriguez), provides ample evidence of the paradoxes that emerge when anti-authoritarian politics becomes fodder for mainstream entertainment. Despite being a passionate advocate of direct action, Lou—perhaps in the interest of spurious "balance"— is preoccupied with condemning the supposedly violent tendencies of her fellow anarchists. Lou is clearly referencing the activities of the "Black Bloc" and apparently believes that this group’s most famous "transgression" —the smashing of Starbucks windows—renders it hopelessly violent and irresponsible. But as the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber observes, "Journalists have a fairly idiosyncratic definition of 'violence' . . . so, if even one protester damages a Starbucks window, one can speak of 'violent protests,' but if police then proceed to attack everyone present with tazers, sticks, and plastic bullets, this cannot be described as violent." And as a group of anarchists wrote in an anonymous broadside against Townsend's film, an entire swath of anti-hierarchical protest, which includes grassroots groups like "Food Not Bombs," is overlooked in Battle in Seattle. Townsend is, alas, more interested in gooey humanist uplift than the nuts and bolts of direct action.

A BBC documentary that never mentions anarchism—Adam Curtis's The Trap: What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom (2007)—struck a much more resonant note with many anarchists than Townsend’s tepid docudrama. Since words such as freedom and individuality are cherished by the extreme right as well as the left, Curtis's playful polemic, interlaced with interviews and archival footage, endeavors to prove that, during the resurgence of neoliberalism in the 1980s, the regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher hijacked the concepts of freedom and individualism in order to implement authoritarian goals. Embedded in Curtis's ingenious linkages among seemingly disparate thinkers—game theorist and economist John Nash; R.D. Laing, the '60s guru of anti-psychiatry; and Sir Isaiah Berlin, the patrician proponent of "negative liberty"—is an assumption that an alarmingly limited brand of freedom that views human nature as intrinsically selfish gained ascendancy under conservative governments during the 1980s and reached its zenith during the ostensibly "liberal" 1990s regimes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. For anarchists, the obvious implication is that "the trap" of neoliberalism recapitulates the "possessive individualism" of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke that triumphed over the proto-anarchist "communal individuality" espoused by 17th-century radical utopians such as Gerrard Winstanley.

If The Trap might be deemed almost unwittingly anarchist, recent documentaries adhering to an explicitly anti-authoritarian stance reflect a DIY aesthetic than is frequently indivisibly tied to activist goals. In "Videotaping a New World," an article that will appear this spring in Arena: On Anarchist Cinema, an anthology I edited, Andrew Hedden considers the efforts of grassroots anarchist video collectives to provide an "alternative form of journalism." Just as some of the earliest examples of anarchist video—e.g. Clayton Patterson's 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot, which chronicled police malfeasance during a peaceful protest in New York's East Village—fused ethnography and activism, groups such as the Argentinean Grupo Alavio and A-films, a Middle Eastern collective, both document and participate in local struggles. Cop Watch L.A., on the other hand, goes well beyond the role of media watchdog and demonstrates how the line separating filmmaking and direct action can be permanently effaced. Armed with video and cell phone cameras, Cop Watch L.A. brigades monitor police harassment of poor and minority communities in Los Angeles. While outside the realm of art usually assessed by film critics and historians, what Richard Modiano labels a burgeoning "cinematic record of police transgression" also performs an archival function for our era that parallels the aspirations of participant-observers like the journalist Henry Mayhew and the photographer-muckraker Jacob Riis in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Even as unimpeachably earnest anarchist nonfiction thrives, a new film, Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern's Louise-Michel (which screened at Sundance and Rotterdam last month), reinvents anti-authoritarian rage with deadpan gallows humor. The two protagonists' first names invoke the memory of Louise Michel, the anarchist heroine of the Paris Commune of 1871, in ways that will understandably disconcert many earnest anarchists. When the mildly retarded Louise (Yolande Moreau) discovers that she and her colleagues are suddenly out of work after a duplicitous boss abandons their factory, she urges her comrades to hire a hit man to kill the hated culprit. The contract killer turns out to be Michel (Bouli Lanners), a hopeless bungler who leads Louise on a wacky wild goose chase through France and Belgium until their prey is finally discovered relaxing in Jersey, a notorious tax haven in the Channel Islands.

A film that dispatches clownish and inept anti-heroes to wreak havoc on boorish capitalists involves tricky narrative and political strategies. But as buffoonish as Louise and Michel might be, Delépine and Kervern are undeniably fond of this hapless duo; in a recent interview with Cineuropa, Kervern insists that these marginal characters touch him and his co-director "more than the company bosses and middle-classes, or the literary and artistic circles, who are usually the focus of French films." In addition, as the journalist Fabien Lemercier maintains, Louise and Michel's vertiginous quest is almost impossible to disentangle from the peculiar depersonalization wrought by corporate globalization. While a villainous boss in the 19th century would not have strayed from his local estate, contemporary plutocrats, with no visible national allegiances, are free to wander the globe. In the film's most comically transgressive sequence, the ungainly pair simulate the destruction of the World Trade Center with the aid of a scale model, an act that functions as both an absurdist exorcism of this international trauma and an irreverent act that thumbs its nose at mainstream—and anarchist—respectability.


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue
Photo Gallery: Revolutionary Mode


anarchist film  |  James McTeigue  |  Stuart Townsend  |  Louise Michel  |  Alan Moore  |  Adam Curtis  |  Hollywood  |  documentary  |  9/11  |  violence


Archival Trouble by Michael Atkinson
More: Article Archive


Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste in New York. He is the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination (Verso) and the editor of two forthcoming anthologies, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press) and Arena 1: Cinema and Anarchism (PM Press).

More articles by Richard Porton