Lying pictures, and pictures that tell the truth: The subgenre of 'compilation films' comes to Anthology, with highlights from Ceauşescu, '60s lefties
12:28 pm Jan. 18, 2012
You don’t have to be a professional handicapper to foretell that 2012 will likely be depressing, no matter the outcome of the presidential contest.
While the G.O.P. horse race is the least substantive story in politics, it seems like the only one the media can sell ads or leverage clicks against. Among other things, that means process stories about short films (or, if you prefer, ads) created in extraordinary bad faith, with the specific purpose of attracting dull television coverage.
If you worry that this obsession with “optics” will occlude the images that do matter, you’ll want to head to Anthology Film Archives over the next nine days. Their new screening series, which opens Wednesday and has been organized around the concept of the "compilation film," offers a few lessons in political imagery, and a reminder that the false deployment of imagery is nothing new in Western politics. For the discontented, this comes as something of a comfort.
Last year’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu ranked surprisingly high on the Village Voice-L.A. Weekly year-end critics’ poll (in which I vote), and embodies the concept of the compilation film neatly enough. Its reappearance this week represents one of the highlights of January’s film calendar in New York.
Director Andrei Ujică’s work (along with that of sound designer Dana Bunescu, about which more below) takes hundreds of hours of film from the late Romanian executive’s archive and repurposes them in order to assemble what Anthology calls “a portrait of reality seen through the prism of the ‘fiction’ Ceauşescu and his government attempted to impose on Romania and on the world” during his quarter-century run as a socialist leader.
This three-hour supercut plays like an old school epic, as if D.W. Griffith had gone conceptual about state power after reading some late–20th century French theory. On the surface made up of no more than the officially sanctioned crap of public-facing happy talk—the endless greeting of foreign leaders, touring of supermarkets, and waving during parades—the viewer is nevertheless able to discern the swelling pulse of history hidden in the anodyne. “How much fish did they bring in?” a worker at a typically empty supermarket asks idly, before a Presidential inspection in front of the cameras, during the crumbling of the Soviet bloc in the '80s. (Stocking those bare shelves was the job of what we’d call “advance men” over here.) Meanwhile, the personality cult established by the vain leader routinely verges on the preposterous. “Symbolism may be good for the arts, but it's worthless in economics and politics,” the dear leader says during a speech—underneath a huge portrait of himself in the hall of the National Assembly.
What a worthy "compilation film" does—the thing that a History Channel one-off hour cannot—is make poetry from moments like these. Since presumably a lot of the early state footage of Ceauşescu was recorded without direct sound, the choices of music (and other subtle, suggestive pieces of post-production work) made by the filmmakers play a big part in Autobiography’s success. The film’s most striking moment of montage comes when the president looms creepily over a model scale of some Romanian city under development. Standing on a barge-like structure with his retinue, he is mechanically swept over the faux city’s skyline, his vantage imperial and quasi–science fictional. The music that supports this archival film clip is Gyorgy Ligeti’s ironic “Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes,” in which the titular instruments are wound and set to clatter at different speeds, before each machine individually falls silently into a state of exhaustion.
Written by a Hungarian as a response to 20th century ideologies on the whole, Ligeti’s piece, as used in this film, works as a sonic metaphor that covers three decades of dictatorial misery in 30 seconds. It’s as though the crunching opening sounds stand for the fearsome power of Romania’s Securitate (or secret police), while the closing seconds represent the rickety collapse of the U.S.S.R. in the late 1980s. While background knowledge often helps with subject matter like this, you don’t have to know much beyond the broad strokes of recent history to appreciate Autobiography, which communicates, through editing, as pure cinema.
The other can’t-miss film set to be screened as part of Anthology’s series is another three-hour epic: Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat (it plays twice this coming weekend). Long unavailable stateside (though at long last also on DVD), this assemblage of raw footage taken during leftist protests and revolutions all over the world, between the years 1967 and 1977, is both a legendary piece of film history, and also newly relevant in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from Zuccotti Park. Structurally, Grin proves, in some ways, the contrapositive of Autobiography. In the latter, we never get to see behind the scenes, where the power is deployed, while in the former, we’re granted deep access not only to the activists of the worldwide New Left, but also the napalm-spraying fighter pilots taking home movies of their air raids in Vietnam. (“Outstanding … that’s what I like to see,” says one, bragging about being able to see “Victor Charlie” scrambling on the ground.)
Marker’s art, though—beyond causing our political rubbernecking—is to show us how little agency there really is in these inner sanctums. As his Cheshire-cat-referencing title implies, the various utopias of the New Left are forever talked about (the grin), but never realized (the cat itself). This holds true whether we are watching Castro impotently object, on philosophical grounds, to Russia’s military intervention in the Prague Spring, before tacitly condoning it as a matter of necessity—or else when we sit with the U.S. fighter pilot, who evinces no awareness at all of whom or what he might be shooting at.
Anthology’s series also includes some more pedestrian, though hardly unworthy, examples of compilation films. A quartet of shorter works looks, variously, at discrete moments from modern Russian history, as well as Germany’s instructional pop forms at various points during the 20th Century. While of interest as preservation items, they can’t quite claim the analytic power of either Grin or Autobiography—both of which suggest at least the chance that our current political pieties, however shallow they seem now, may communicate something new to the future about this moment in history.
More by this author:
- The surprising and genre-confounding collaboration of Hillary Hahn and Hauschka
- A free Philip Glass show, and more treats from him on deck