Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 31, 2018

In the Intense Now

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in N.Y,, Brazilian director João Moreira Salles’s documentary “In the Intense Now” is an elegiac look back at the radical movements of 1968 that consists of Salles’s nonstop commentary (Portuguese with English subtitles) over archival footage—a mixture of home movies, newsreels, and obscure agitprop made by Maoist collectives and the like. It is an incredible parade of activism from a period that is now as distant chronologically from 2018 as the Russian Revolution was to those of us marching against the war in Vietnam.

Although Salles was only 6 years old in 1968, he adopts the somewhat mournful tone of a veteran of the May-June events in France who has never recovered from their failure to achieve final victory against capitalism. He hones in on a young woman in the midst of street-fighting who is wearing a radiant smile, looking so much more fulfilled than the isolated and impotent left of today. His approach is very reminiscent of Chris Marker’s “A Grin without a Cat” that covers much of the same territory politically, except that it is much broader in scope, beginning with the Russian Revolution.

In my review of “A Grin without a Cat”, I mentioned the conversation that Marker had with a gloating Major Robert “Pappy” Shelton who considered Che Guevara’s defeat in Bolivia as a function of him relying on the Communist Party. In France, you had a variation on CP treachery as their trade union officials worked overtime to end the general strike and pushed for a return to bourgeois normalcy.

In probably the most telling moment in the film, we see a heated argument between a young female worker and a union local officer at the front door of the Wonder factory about whether they should go back to work. This was part of a film made by radical students from the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC), just one of many that make this film such necessary viewing for my readers. Holding back tears, she says, “No, I won’t go back in. I won’t set foot again in this filthy joint. You should see what a shithole it is! We are black to our necks in there, it is disgusting. If we go back in, we won’t be able to get anything else! We are not even allowed to use the toilet!” The CP union officer reminds her that they will be receiving higher wages, part of the deal with De Gaulle to get the workers to end their strike. The workers tell him that it was not higher wages they sought but an overturn of the oppressive conditions at Wonder.

For Salles, the CP was nearly as frightened by the “anarchy” of the students and workers as De Gaulle whose timing was perfect. Within days of getting them to sign a back to work agreement, his supporters called for an anti-radical protest that brought 500,000 people into the streets. Salles describes them as shopkeepers frightened by the protests, not that different from those who backed General al-Sisi in Egypt. There were also lots of yuppies wearing cashmere sweaters and more than a few who chanted “Cohn-Bendit back to Dachau”.

Back in 1968, everybody on the left had heard about Daniel Cohn-Bendit who was to the French student movement as Mario Savio was to the student revolt in Berkeley a few year earlier. Cohn-Bendit, who is effectively the star of “In the Intense Now”, was the son of German Jews who fled to France to escape Nazism. In June 1968, Cohn-Bendit makes a trip to Germany to speak to the student movement there only to learn that the French were trying to prevent him from returning.

At the time, I was much more tuned in to the French Trotskyist movement that was playing a significant role in the movement even it was not as prominent as Cohn-Bendit. The leading spokesman was Alain Krivine, who was 27 at the time. Another important figure was Daniel Bensaid, a Jew like Krivine, who had grown up in Algeria. Bensaid died in 2010 from the complications of AIDS.

Like Regis Debray, who was arrested in Bolivia during the crackdown on Che Guevara, Daniel Cohn-Bendit became integrated into the French political elite as the years wore on. He became a top leader of the Green Party that had shed its radicalism. Among his close collaborators is the laptop bombardier Bernard Kouchner. He also co-chairs the Spinelli Group, a liberal think-tank that advocates federalization of the EU.

In another riveting scene from “In the Intense Now”, we see the 23-year old Cohn-Bendit and two other student leaders facing off against a group of establishment intellectuals on a TV talk show over the goals of the student and workers movement. One of them tells Cohn-Bendit that you always end up with a disaster when a movement has a blueprint for a utopian society like the Russian revolutionaries had. A strikingly articulate Cohn-Bendit reminds the pompous historian that Marx and Lenin eschewed such blueprints and that the goal of the movement was mostly to evolve toward a better society by removing obstacles in its way such as a university system that kept students in thrall to reactionary administrations. As an interesting side note, the film points out that the May-June events started at the University of Nanterre over repressive regulations against sexual relations, not the war in Vietnam. Of course, as the protests spread, they took on an antiwar character and ultimately an anti-capitalist character.

Salles spends less time looking at the Soviet intervention that brought the Czech Spring to an end but the footage is as compelling as any made in France that year. There is a poignant scene of Marta Kubišová, Czechoslovakia’s most respected protest singer, rushing up to Alexander Dubcek as he is entering the Parliament building in order to honor him with a pendant she wore around her neck customarily. We also see her singing “Prayer for Marta” that became a symbol of national resistance against the occupation of Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. After Stalinist “normalcy” is returned to Czechoslovakia, we see a film of a dispirited Kubišová crooning to barnyard animals.

More questionably, Salles includes a fair amount of home movies made by his mother in 1966 during a tour of China, where she is smitten by the Red Guards. It is difficult to glean from any of this whether she had much in common with the student left, especially as Salles points out that she was overwhelmed by the Chinese complexion that is even more beautiful than that of the English. A Mrs. Magoo?

If you can ignore the China segment, “In the Intense Now” is a rewarding experience for those of my readers who have only a dim awareness of the May-June 1968 events or even for someone like me who was immersed in them at the time.

Also, let me offer a capsule review of “Retribution”, a 2015 Spanish film on Netflix that I saw last night. This is an exciting action film akin to “Speed”, the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock vehicle from 1994 about a bus that will be blown up if goes beneath 50 miles per hour. The only way to defuse the bomb is to turn over $3 million in ransom to a fiendish Dennis Hopper.

In “Retribution”, a wealthy but unscrupulous (is that redundant?) banker who sets off one morning to drop off a teen daughter and an elementary school son. On the way there in his Mercedes-Benz SUV, he gets a call on his smart phone from a man who informs him that he and the children are sitting above explosives that will go off unless he deposits 465,000 Euros into an offshore bank account.

The film has breakneck pacing as the banker has to deal with frightened children, the sheer impossibility of raising the money, dashing from one place to another on the instructions of the bomber, and finally avoiding the police who suspect him of being the bomber himself. As the banker, Luis Tosar is just terrific.

While not giving away too much (a spoiler in this case would ruin the film for you), let me say that the title of the film is most appropriate.


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