Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana (1971)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

 

I think that Fata Morgana has to be one of the most unique films that I’ve screened thus far for this project. I don’t have a great deal of experience in writing about documentary or non-narrative experimental films, both in this project, and in general, so it should be an interesting process trying to find the verbiage to record my thoughts on what was a truly different film viewing experience. Fata Morgana has its predecessors, particularly in experimental science-fiction films like La Jetee, and I can certainly see the influence that this film has had on a generation of experimental filmmakers, but I don’t know that I have ever seen a movie that was quite like Fata Morgana. Leave it to an outsider and a visionary like Werner Herzog to have created a film that is unlike any other, and to have done it so early in his career. Fata Morgana is at once weird, beautiful, esoteric, and hypnotic.

Herzog and a small crew shot Fata Morgana in the Sahara Desert in the late 1960s without any real plan for how to edit the footage together or how it would be assembled into a coherent narrative. “Fata morgana” refers to the unusual instances of faint mirages that pop up above the horizon line in deserts and on the ocean, and in the film, Herzog captures several of these in slow tracking shots that take in the barren desert landscape. The film also includes some brief interludes with human subjects, but the bulk of its visuals are landscapes. Early in the film, Herzog sets these stunningly beautiful images to a voiceover narration by German critic Lotte Eisner reading a version of a Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh, which Herzog has adapted. Later he introduces the music of Leonard Cohen, giving the images a more grounded feeling, while the creation myth used in the film’s first half elevates the images to a more ethereal significance.

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On its surface, Fata Morgana is a very simple film, consisting simply of placid images and sporadic bits of voiceover. However, as you watch the film, the images start to add up to a more complex narrative, giving each other context and significance. Herzog had initially envisioned the film as a science-fiction film about a dying planet, and it’s easy to see how that could have been accomplished. The depopulated landscapes of the Sahara that Herzog and his camera operator, Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, film certainly feel cold and alien. The way the mirages that they capture flicker at the horizon line, it’s easy to get the sense that there is some great secret, or a hidden civilization, existing just outside the frame. Herzog shows us rotting animal corpses and the rusting wreckage of aircraft, furthering the impression that we are observing the death of a once-great civilization. Eisner’s narration, however, provides counterpoint to the barrenness of the images, giving the impression that if these are the ruins of a long-dead civilization, they are destined to be the site of a blossoming of the next society. Her recitation of the Popul Vuh gives the mirages a hopeful, if somewhat portentious, feeling.

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As the film progresses, a more explicit narrative starts to emerge as the nature of Herzog’s images changes and he abandons the creation myth in favor of the soft music of Leonard Cohen. My mind couldn’t help but drift to thoughts of colonization and the exploitation of the African continent for centuries when the images began to shift away from an exploration of the natural world of the Sahara and towards a more industrial, urban landscape. Midway through the film, Schmidt-Reitwein’s camera begins to focus more intently on construction sites and the frames of buildings, the skeletons of heavy industry. Flickering mirages give way eventually to the ghosts of Europe’s colonial influence on the continent. Herzog interviews a German scientist holding a monitor lizard, who talks about the unique ecosystem of the desert, and its importance for his studies of the lizards. I felt like his attitude towards Africa as a strange, exotic place, useful only for his scholarly pursuits was quite pejorative, and it indicates a new, less obvious form of paternalism and colonialism. Though anti-colonialist sentiments aren’t made explicit in any way in the film, I have to think that revolution and colonialism were on Herzog’s mind as he made Fata Morgana, as it was partially shot in Cameroon during that country’s war for independence.

Of course, by their very nature, movies like Fata Morgana are wide open for various interpretations. The film was one of the first popular psychedelic experimental films, and I have to think that experiencing it on psychedelics would only enhance the film’s multitude of possible interpretations. The images in the film are hallucinatory and mesmerizing, with the same framings or locations often being repeated with slight variations, furthering their dreamlike nature. Divorced from explicit context or explanation, the images invite the audience to provide their own narratives, spinning them out into collective dreams. While Herzog undoubtedly had an idea in his head about the meaning of the film that he had carefully constructed, he left so much room for interpretation that, like the mirages it depicts, Fata Morgana can appear to be many different things to many different people. It’s a movie that I would be very interested in seeing in a crowded theater, because I think that the reactions to it would be varied and passionate. I think that most people would either dismiss the movie as weird and esoteric, or they would strongly identify with it, having pasted their own experiences and viewpoints onto its beautiful landscapes, imbuing it with a highly personal meaning.

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Though Herzog continues to work prolifically in documentary and his filmography is peppered with instances of formal and narrative experimentation, Fata Morgana is certainly the most explicitly experimental Herzog film that I have ever seen. The film is a product of its montage, with the images being stripped of their context, and therefore being opened up to interpretation and the influence of the viewer’s mind and experience. The fata morgana depicted in the film also become tabula rasa. The film invites intent and engaged viewership, but also offers a sort of hypnotic, sedative quality, as the images and the narration and, eventually, music, wash over the viewer. This is a thinking person’s stoner film, and one that will definitely stick around in your consciousness for a little while after a screening. This is one of my shorter posts about a movie in a while, but not because Fata Morgana isn’t worthy of deep discussion and consideration, both as a formative feature-length experimental film, and within Herzog’s filmography, but because I don’t feel that I really have an adequate vocabulary to really describe the film’s uniqueness. It’s a movie that deserves to be more watched, particularly by people who are fans of midnight movies like Koyaanisqatsi and Body Song. It’s a cinematic trip well worth taking, and one that will likely open up your mind to new ways of engaging with cinema as art.

The Decline of Western Civilization

The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)

Dir. Penelope Spheeris

 

Punk rock changed my life when I was about 13 years old. I was in junior high school, and because I was in the band at my school, I was able to opt out of taking a traditional music elective. I was able to spend that period of the day practicing the saxophone, but I also had to write a research paper on a topic of my choice by the end of the semester. Being a rock and roll obsessed preteen, I decided that I would write my research paper on “Punk Rock,” a style of music that I was only aware of as a concept. I didn’t really know what punk music was supposed to be, but something about the phrase was alluring to me, and I decided I would seek out its origin. Like any good academic, my research began at the library, where I found Legs McNeil’s oral history of the birth of punk, Please Kill Me, and devoured it. The book turned me on what it meant to be a punk, and to the forefathers of the punk scene in New York City: Richard Hell, The Dead Boys, Blondie, but most importantly, it introduced me to the Ramones. I’d been playing guitar for a couple of years at this point, having formed a band with some friends the year before. I was into classic rock at the time, mostly listening to bands like Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, or Kiss, but when I first encountered the Ramones, my musical life was altered forever. Their buzzsaw guitars, breakneck pace, and Joey Ramone’s garbled vocal delivery were the only thing that mattered to me after that. It was perfect music, perfect in its simplicity and its relatability, perfect in its attitude and its outsiderness. The Ramones kicked down the door to so many other bands and ideas, and punk rock became my life. It changed the way I wanted to play music and it helped introduce me to ideas that would create the core of my identity during those formative teen years.

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As I’ve gotten older, my musical tastes have expanded again. I sometimes even go entire days without listening to Minor Threat, although almost never more than a couple in a row. While it might not be as outwardly obvious from my dress or demeanor, I’ve never lost my affinity for punk rock and its core ideals and values. The devotion of the music to authenticity, fierce independence, and anti-authoritarianism still endears it to my inner punk, and still keeps me striving to maintain those ideals in my everyday life. For me living your life punk has less to do with fashion, or even music, and more to do with action. It means living your life with integrity, maintaining your independence and dignity, and not bowing to forces of larger oppression. But of course, the history of the music and the culture is important, too, and it was with that in mind that I purchased Penelope Spheeris’s seminal punk rock documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, when it was rereleased on Blu-Ray, along with its sequels, a few years back.

Spheeris’s three Decline films explore the punk and metal scenes in Los Angeles during the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The first film in the trilogy, released in 1980, combines concert footage with candid interviews from members of the bands and the scene, providing a window into the burgeoning Los Angeles hardcore punk scene of the late 1970s. Many of the bands featured here, including Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, and X, are considered the architects of a particular brand of hardcore music. West coast punk and hardcore had emerged as a snarling, visceral answer to the artier, more bohemian punk scene of New York City that had been influenced by the Warhol Factory scene. The music was faster, darker, more aggressive. The attitude was even more nihilistic and violent, with the punk scene providing a layer of crust and grime hidden away beneath the glamor of Hollywood. Long out of print, the film is now available for the first time on home video, and it’s a good thing because The Decline of Western Civilization is a fantastic document of early punk history. The film is alive with the energy of punk and Spheeris is able to perfectly capture the essence of the music and the scene in her film.

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The concert footage in the film is a maelstrom, with Spheeris and her cameramen inserting themselves into the midst of surging crowds of punks. The handheld camera is jostled and tilted, capturing close ups of sneering faces and flailing arms and legs, clad in leather and spikes. The camera also shares the stage with the bands, who are equally as expressive and unpredictable. Like the music scene it’s documenting, the film feels dangerous; violence can, and does, break out at any time. Punks fight with other punks, bouncers fight with punks, punks fight with the bands, and the whole time the cameras continue to roll, picking up ambient sound amid the chaos. The film manages to perfectly simulate the experience of being at a punk rock show, and it’s the perfect introduction to many of these classic bands. The concert footage is rare in its intimacy and its quality. Despite being shot in such an inhospitable environment, the film looks fantastic. Before seeing The Decline of Western Civilization, I hadn’t seen such early live footage of some of my favorite bands in such high definition. You can get a feel for west coast hardcore by listening to Circle Jerks’ debut album Group Sex, but there’s something magical about watching a young Keith Morris running off the stage to fight a punk who had charged the stage, making a circle around the club, and then jump back on stage and grab the microphone in time to deliver a final chorus of “Back Against the Wall.” It’s a perfect experience of the chaotic, violent energy that existed in the early Los Angeles punk scene.

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Though she doesn’t include interviews with all of the bands featured in the documentary, Spheeris’s interview segments with Black Flag, X, and Darby Crash of Germs are all well done and help to illustrate the diversity of the bands within the scene. Her interview style is guided but not invasive. She lets each band or individual tell their own story in their own words, while maintaining enough of a focus to draw out a coherent narrative of punk rock in Los Angeles at the end of the 1970s. The bands’ communal lifestyles are highlighted in the interviews, as Spheeris asks Ron Reyes and Robo from Black Flag to give her a tour of the small two room squat that they share inside an old church, which also doubles as the band’s rehearsal space. While it seems that Black Flag and Germs are living hand to mouth, not getting paid for gigs, and largely shacking up wherever they can manage to find a place to rest their heads, other bands featured on the documentary are obviously having more success. X is shown to be a band that is in high demand and is actually courted by the local clubs for shows, while bands such as Germs or Fear are banned from clubs regularly due to the violence and chaos that regularly breaks out at their shows. Seeing a cross section of the lifestyles of many different groups helps to illustrate the striation and variation among these bands. Although they all seem to be somewhat friendly with one another, often name dropping members of various other bands in their interviews, there is an obvious hierarchy and a fairly wide variation among their lifestyles and musical styles. Crash is shown as a tortured genius, unable to extricate himself from his patterns of substance abuse and speeding towards his own demise, while Exene and John Doe of X both seem more mature and more able to handle the pressures of being a top band in a scene that is starting to emerge. For the most part, these bands and their members would go on to international fame, but this glimpse into their everyday lives is an insightful look into the day-to-day struggles that would shape their version of punk rock.

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In her follow up films, Spheeris would delve deeper into the heavy music scene of Los Angeles. Decline II focuses on the glam and heavy metal scene popping up in the 1980s around the clubs of the Sunset Strip, while Decline III, which was never released until the Blu-Ray reissue of the trilogy, depicts the lives of the scores of runaway and homeless punk youths who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Both films are worth checking out, with each having its own merits and standing apart from the original documentary by shifting the focus slightly. The final film in the trilogy is perhaps the most moving and heartbreaking of the three, as it depicts the fun energy of punk that was present in the first film being twisted up into an empty nihilism. While the punks of The Decline of Western Civilization may not have had much hope or much optimism, they seemed to genuinely be enjoying their lifestyle, while Spheeris’s final look in on the scene finds it devoid of any shred of positivity. Although I have roughly defined what being a punk means to me, the spirit of punk rock is a nebulous thing. Depending on when and why a person found themselves drawn to the music, they’ll form their own opinions of what punk is and how it can best serve their life. For me, discovering punk rock as a small town kid in the late 1990s was a new path to channel my aggression and frustration with the institutions in my life. I was a young malcontent, staunchly anti-authoritarian, and punk rock gave me a framework within which to lash out. I’ve really only gone into any detail on the first film in her Decline trilogy, but the fact that Spheeris could make three films that all look at the punk rock ethos in a different decade speaks to the amorphous, constantly evolving nature of the scene. Born of a certain set of circumstances and frustrations, punk rock has changed through the years to reflect the anxieties of each passing generation. In its most pure form, punk should be opposed to strict rigidity and therefore will always be accessible, ready to be discovered and recontextualized, shaped into the vessel that it’s needed to be. Punk rock arrived in my life at the perfect time, and I hope that through the preservation of documents of its early history, like The Decline of Western Civilization, it will do that for generations of angry kids to come.

The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

Written by: Franco Solinas

Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Saadi Yassef, Jean Martin

 

I first saw The Battle of Algiers in the spring of 2005 when it was assigned to me for a project during my freshman year of college. I was taking a World Film History course and the major assignment was to do a short research project on a classic international film. Films were chosen at random out of a hat, and I was lucky enough to draw a film that was not only readily available to screen, but was actually experiencing a cultural and critical re-evaluation at the time. Some students drew films that were more obscure, or even lost, having to rely on secondary and tertiary sources to build up their projects, but The Battle of Algiers had actually been released on DVD through the Criterion Collection in 2004, and there was a wealth of criticism about the film, both contemporary and from the film’s initial release in 1966. It was one of the first overtly political films that I had ever seen, and I watched it several times while I was working on the research project. Exposure to The Battle of Algiers at that early time in my study of film, and to the primarily Marxist essays and criticisms I was reading about the film, changed the way I thought about movies and how to approach them analytically.

The film depicts the events of a three year period from 1954 to 1957 during the Algerian War of Independence, focusing particularly on the formation of a guerilla branch of the FLN (National Liberation Front) in the Casbah and the subsequent attempts of the French military to quell the uprising. The film opens at the end of its narrative, with Ali La Pointe (Hadjadj) and several other FLN freedom fighters trapped in a building in the Casbah, surrounded by French paratroopers, and then flashes back to 1954 to show the events that have led to this point. Ali is a petty criminal who is recruited by the FLN, and rises through the ranks, providing the audience a glimpse into how the group is organized and the tactics that the rebels employ in their fight against the French colonialists. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war. Over the course of the film, we see the violence in the Casbah escalate from shootings to bombings. At the same time, we are shown the French army respond to this violence with equally savage methods including torture and summary executions. While the military wins the Battle of Algiers by assassinating or neutralizing the FLN’s leadership, the film’s epilogue flashes forward to 1960, showing that the spirit of revolution is still alive in the Casbah as pro-Algerian demonstrations have broken out again. On July 2, 1962, the Algerian nation was established, and French colonization of the country and its citizens was ended after nearly 150 years.

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An Italian and Algerian co-production, The Battle of Algiers is part procedural, part action film, and part docu-drama, and it could be considered a very late entry into the cycle of post-war Italian neo-realist films. It is based on the field memoirs of Saadi Yassef, a military commander for the FLN who was captured during the Battle of Algiers, who also plays a fictionalized version of himself in the film, El-hadi Jaffar. Pontecorvo was no doubt influenced by the films of his peers in the school of neo-realist filmmaking, as he consciously chose to give the film the feeling of a documentary, though it is fictionalized. The Battle of Algiers is shot like a newsreel, in black and white, employing handheld camerawork and quick zooms. Its style and relationship to actual, recent, historical events help the film blur the line between fiction and documentary. The film features almost exclusively non-professional actors, furthering its realism. Pontecorvo chose his cast based on their appearances, rather than their acting ability, and he often frames his characters in close-up, capturing expressive faces that resonate emotionally and contrast with the more detached, documentary presentation of the chaos and violence of the Casbah during the war. The film ultimately doesn’t make an explicit endorsement for either side in the conflict, mainly due to pressure from its Italian producers who insisted on a neutral presentation of the conflict, but I think that Pontecorvo’s stylistic choices in the film make it clear that his sympathies are with the Algerians. Though the film depicts the suffering of Algerians and French alike, we are intended to see Ali, Jaffar, and the other FLN freedom fighters as the heroes, and the French Colonel Mathieu (Martin, the film’s only professional actor) as the villain.

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Though it is presented simply, as a realist document, The Battle of Algiers certainly doesn’t lack for style. The film’s camerawork is technically impressive, with cinematographer Marcello Gatti creating a claustrophobic, oppressive tone as his camera explores the maze of alleys that make up the Casbah through masterful handheld tracking shots and zooms. As mentioned earlier, these zooms often end in close-ups of people’s faces, drawing the audience’s attention to the palpable suffering of the Algerians. The film’s grainy, black and white is evocative of newsreel footage, but it is also beautiful, allowing for both softly-lit interiors and high-contrast exterior shots of the Casbah that establish a concrete sense of place. The film’s use of sound also helps to establish place and mood. The score, by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone, alternates between pieces built around frantic drumming and woodwinds, underscoring the tense mood of the conflict, and pieces that feature slow, elegiac strings that heighten the emotional impact of some of the film’s more violent scenes. The film also uses diegetic sound to establish the differences between the French colonialists, who are associated with the sounds of gunfire, trucks, and cars, and the Algerians who are associated with the explosions of bombs, native drumming, and with the wailing and chanting of the citizens of the Casbah as they take to the streets to protest their treatment at the hands of their colonizers. The French are aurally associated with elements of modernity while the Algerians are associated with a more primal, tribal sound palate. The effect of this contrast isn’t pejorative, however. When coupled with the numerous shots of the thousands of Algerian extras-all actual residents of the Casbah-gathered in sorrowful prayer, the soundscape imbues the Algerian cause with a sort of religious piety.

Despite its resistance to embracing an overt political position, The Battle of Algiers has become an important film in the history of political discourse. At the time of its release, the film was praised by many critics, and won several awards at major European film festivals, but the film also had detractors and was banned in France until the early 1970s for being too sympathetic to the Algerian point of view. It was released at a time of global decolonization and worldwide struggles by oppressed peoples to assert their right to self-determination, and The Battle of Algiers was seen by many as a primer for revolutionary action. The film was also used as an example of successful counter-insurgency tactics due to its realistic depictions of urban military operations and guerilla warfare tactics. The film was famously screened at the White House in 2003 due to the similarities of the film’s subject matter to the then-new Operation Iraqi Freedom. This similarity to geopolitical realities at the beginning of the 21st century led to a renewed interest in the film, ultimately resulting in a remastering and theatrical re-release of the film in 2004. It was in this context that I first encountered The Battle of Algiers.

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Coming of age during the George W. Bush administration helped shape my development as a politically progressive, leftist-leaning malcontent. I spent my teens reading Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Saul Alinsky, and developing more and more disdain for the American military-industrial complex, in general, and the seemingly endless military conflict in the Middle East, in particular. The more I learned about the history of America, the more I was able to connect the Iraq war to a long chain of injustices, played out on the global scale, committed in the name of American cultural hegemony and imperialism. Seeing The Battle of Algiers helped to connect that sense of history to a larger, global context, and to the anti-imperialist struggles of oppressed peoples throughout the world. I already had a vague sense of the global history of revolution in the 20th century, but my work researching The Battle of Algiers and its context brought me into contact with writers such as Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernesto Freire who helped to illuminate the power relationships between the colonizer and the oppressed, and underlined the role of global capitalism in upholding these relationships. For someone of my political persuasions to discover The Battle of Algiers at that time was a revelation. It felt extremely relevant at the time, and helped to crystallize my beliefs.

If The Battle of Algiers felt prescient to me in 2005, it may be even more so after watching it again in 2017. The military conflict that I found so abhorrent then, in its infancy, has continued on for nearly 15 years, a slog that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Over the course of the conflict, debates over the morality of remote drone warfare and “enhanced interrogation techniques” filled the news, reminiscent of the scenes of torture in the film. American attempts at regime-building, proposed under the guise of “spreading democracy,” have continued to further destabilize the Middle East, ensuring indefinite continued military engagement in the region. The tactics of warfare have changed in the 21st century but the underpinning motive of promoting the cultural and political hegemony of the United States remains. Over the last decade, Islamophobia has become rampant in response to high profile instances of religious extremism, but I’m always conscious of the fact that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Terror inducing violence is unacceptable on every level, but I’m reminded by The Battle of Algiers that often acts of terrorism are direct responses by the oppressed to the injustices meted out on them by their oppressors. In many ways, Western hegemonic powers such as France and the United States laid the groundwork for the 21st century terror state through their history of colonial oppression. As Fanon pointed out, often violence is the only language that can be understood by those who would wield power violently over the disenfranchised.

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The scene that stuck with the most during this rewatch of The Battle of Algiers was the film’s epilogue. After Ali la Pointe, Jaffar, and the rest of the FLN’s leadership has been eliminated, the film shows us that the revolution lived on without them. After a two year period of relative piece in Algiers, the residents of the Casbah once again took to the streets in December, 1960, waving flags and asserting their desire to live free of the tyranny of colonialism. Pontecorvo somehow recreates this scene, filming hundreds of extras as they teem through the streets of the Casbah, chanting, ululating, and waving flags bearing the crescent and star. Again, the handheld camera puts the audience in the midst of a mob scene, moving through the crowd, picking up on determined faces, as a reporter gives context to the images through his voice-over description. Smoke and dust obscure the view as the crowd faces off against police and the military, who are badly outnumbered despite their martial superiority. Police beat the marchers with clubs and the army attempts to drive them away with tanks, but the crowd will not disperse. The demonstrations are shown to have gone on for nearly a month, before finally ending on December 21st, 1960, after having captured the hearts and minds of the French public and prompting many in the political class to consider “seeking a new relationship with Algeria,” as the film puts it.

In the film’s final scene, a French military officer approaches the gathered mob in the Casbah, who are obscured by smoke. “Return to your homes!” he shouts, “What do you want?” The camera slowly zooms past the officer, and from the smoke comes the response from the demonstrators, “Independence! Our pride! We want our freedom!” Slowly the smoke begins to clear, revealing the demonstrators, who are chanting defiantly in the face of authority. Two women who are dancing and waving flags stand out from the crowd immediately, and the camera again picks up on their faces. Though they are pushed back by the police, the women continue to advance, their visages alight with pride and dignity. The film’s final shot is a close up of one of the women twirling and waving her flag, a smile beaming across her face, as the voice over narration reminds the audience that though there were still two years of struggle to come, “on July 2nd, 1962, with its independence, the Algerian nation was born.”

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I was struck by the passion that that woman displayed. No doubt, she had experienced first-hand the oppressive nature of colonialism just a few years before being shot for The Battle of Algiers. The pride and the determination she showed was earned through her actual struggle to live in a free society. Watching those last scenes, I thought about the real-life scenes of riots and demonstrations that I had seen broadcast from Baltimore, from Ferguson, from countless other cities in America where African-American men were murdered at the hands of the police. I was reminded that the struggle for freedom isn’t limited to the past, nor is it confined to matters of national identity. If, in my country, a person cannot walk down the street without fearing for their life, then we have not moved past the injustices of a colonial system in which the ruling class seeks to exploit and dominate the underclass. The civil rights leaders of the 1960s looked to global anti-colonialist movements with an eye towards solidarity, and I think that it could be instructive for those who would fight for equal rights to make sure that they continue to explore that history. The combined forces of nationalism, capitalism, and ethnocentrism seek to divide and oppress the masses, profiting the wealthy while treading on the poor and the weak. There are historical examples of times when revolutionary action was necessary to overthrow tyrannical governments, right historical injustices, and restore power to the people. The lesson I’ve taken from watching The Battle of Algiers after seeing my country elect a quasi-fascist bigot to the highest office in the land is that revolution is a struggle, but, as I was reminded by the woman from the film’s ending, it should also be a joy.

American Splendor

American Splendor (2003)

Dir. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Written by: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (based on the comics by Harvey Pekar)

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar

 

American Splendor is a biopic about the life and work of Cleveland cartoonist Harvey Pekar, the creator of the comic series of the same name. The comic “American Splendor,” which ran from 1976 to 2008, follows the mundane everyday lives of Pekar and his friends and coworkers. It contains Pekar’s musings on life and is presented in his cynical, often miserable, tone, with the illustrations being provided by some of the biggest underground cartoonists of the 70s and 80s. The film adaptation is a genre-hopping picture that presents primarily the period of Pekar’s life in which he was writing the series. It intertwines a dramatized version of Pekar’s life in which he is played by Paul Giamatti with interviews with the actual Pekar, his wife, and friends. Many scenes from the film are direct adaptations of panels from “American Splendor,” sometimes even fading in or out from the illustrated panels.

I have fond memories of this film, having seen it shortly after its release, sometime in 2004. I wasn’t familiar with the comic series at the time, but I remember liking the film’s style and being very enamored with Pekar as a character, both through his actual interviews and Giamatti’s portrayal. I identified very much his persistent negativity. The documentary aspects of the film lent the dramatized storyline veracity, and I enjoyed watching Pekar be interviewed with Giamatti sitting in the background. The film goes out of its way to highlight its construction, which was intriguing to me. I liked being able to compare Giamatti’s performance with the genuine article. I was also intrigued by Pekar’s brand of blue-collar intellectualism. I probably watched the film a half dozen times between 2004 and 2007, or so.

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I was disappointed that after not having seen it in probably a decade, American Splendor didn’t live up to my memories. The film’s varied style of presenting its story, an aspect of it that I had previously enjoyed, was the primary reason for me not connecting with it this time around. Stylistically, I was fine with the introduction of animation and panels from “American Splendor” in the narrative portions of the film, but I felt that the documentary and narrative portions just didn’t mesh. I think that American Splendor works better as a documentary that it does a narrative film, and the presence of the actual Harvey Pekar overshadows the film’s narrative. Springer Berman and Pulcini use Pekar as a narrator throughout the film, both in voice over and in filmed interviews. His character and commentary are so engaging that I found myself wanting more of that, which took away from the film’s narrative segments. I felt that there were the makings of a very good talking head style documentary and a pretty good comedic biopic contained with American Splendor, but I couldn’t quite reconcile the two into a greater whole.

I’m not surprised that the documentary portions of American Splendor shine through, because the film is Springer Berman and Pucini’s first foray into narrative cinema. Previously they had directed several documentaries, primarily about Hollywood subjects. The husband and wife team craft the narrative well, however, and the film, which was shot on location in Cleveland and its suburbs, feels authentic. Giamatti’s performance also helps to elevate the film’s narrative portions, as he captures Pekar’s essence perfectly. He embodies Pekar’s pessimism with his hunched, shambling gait and his raspy line delivery. This role was one of Giamatti’s first breakthrough performances, and it’s clear why he gained the acclaim he did for it. A lesser talent would probably not have been able to stand up in the shadow of the charismatic and funnily sardonic Pekar. My biggest complaint with the narrative portions of the film is that the narrative often feels directionless. I don’t know if this was a conscious artistic decision to mimic the slice of life style of “American Splendor,” but the film felt lacking in motivation. It was enjoyable to watch Giamatti growl and mutter his way through the film, but outside of some occasional domestic turmoil with his wife, Joyce (Hope Davis), there was very little narrative tension or conflict. The film’s third act focuses on Pekar’s diagnosis and subsequent battle with lymphoma, but it feels more like an epilogue than a continuation of the story that the film had previously been telling. Pekar beating cancer should feel like a narrative payoff, a big win for the hero of the story, but instead it had the same significance of any of the other events depicted in the film. I don’t mean to sound overly critical of the film, because it is enjoyable enough. I do think it would have worked better as a documentary with inserts from Pekar’s cartoons and many media appearances. As it is, American Splendor feels a bit like a jumbled mixed-media collage. I think there could be many reasons for this stylistic choice, but it ultimately doesn’t work for me.

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While I likely won’t be rushing to watch American Splendor anytime soon, rewatching it has made me realize how influential the film was in developing some of my literary interests without me even realizing it. A few years after moving to Pittsburgh, I was finally able to track down an “American Splendor” anthology at my local library, which I eagerly read and thoroughly enjoyed. From there it was a short leap to discovering the novel Post Office, and Charles Bukowski became one of my favorite writers during my early- and mid-twenties. In the years after dropping out of graduate school, I sank myself into my work as a bartender and I had a lot of trouble reconciling my professional career with my latent desire to continue academic or creative pursuits. In Bukowski and Pekar, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had found kindred spirits. Working class intellectuals who created great art not in spite of their circumstances of employment or their lack of formal training, but because of it. I don’t have anywhere near the talent of these writers, but it’s good to remember that it’s never too late to get started again. Though Bukowski eventually left his job at the post office, he didn’t become a full time writer until his forties. Pekar worked as a filing clerk for the Cleveland VA hospital for nearly 40 years, finally retiring in 2001, well after he had received much acclaim and fame for his writing. It’s impossible to imagine the work of either without their professional experiences and working class sensibilities. I haven’t thought about Harvey Pekar or American Splendor in years, but his depictions of the day-to-day lives of everyday people, and his elevation of their mundane existences to poetry, have stuck with me and shaped the way I interact with the world today.