A Book Review by John Duncan Talbird.
Paul Douglas Grant’s new book Cinéma Militant: Political Filmmaking & May 1968 (Wallflower Press, 2016) is a history of leftist French film – mostly Marxist-Leninist or Maoist – arising out of the student-worker protests of May ’68 and stretching to the late seventies when many of the film collectives Grant covers disbanded or drifted apart due to disillusionment at atrocities committed in Mao’s China, political infighting, or simple inertia. Grant goes into minute detail about many of these movements and the films they produced – sometimes to a fault – offering plot and scene summaries, chronology, doctrinaire quarrels, quotes, and many, many manifestoes. Although some famous filmmakers – particularly Jean-Luc Goddard and Chris Marker – make appearances in this book, most of the filmmakers, collectives, and films discussed will be new to many.
In Chapter 1 of Cinéma Militant, Grant traces the cinematic events of May ’68 and immediately after. As with La Nouvelle Vague before them, many of the cinema militants were also critics and there is a discussion of the way publications interacted with filmic texts. There is an analysis of the problems of collective filmmaking and also of distribution. It can be fascinating to wonder how any cinéma militant films were made with the endless meetings and consensus-reaching related to everything from subject choice to who holds the camera to where the films are to be shown and what type of discussion will be held after. Chapter 2 covers filmmaker Jean-Pierre Thorn. Grant seems to think his readers will already be familiar with Thorn’s work or his place in film history. We get little sense of why he – more than any other filmmaker – would have such a profound influence on cinéma militant. His relevance seems to be more about his philosophy about activist filmmaking than the actual work. Thorn argued that it was important to “investigate,” that a filmmaker didn’t have a right to make a film unless he (not a typo since there is an unexamined sexism which runs through this movement) experienced the subject firsthand. In order to make a film on a factory strike, Thorn actually got a job in the factory, married an area woman, and became a part of the community. (He later abandons that factory job, his wife, and his coworkers to return to Paris and be a filmmaker again.) Chapter 3 covers Cinélutte which seems to be one of the more successfully theoretical of the film collectives although their dogmatic proclamations become tedious to read. Chapter 4 examines Les groupes Medvedkine, “Before and After Chris Marker,” the subtitle of the chapter reads although Marker seems to be more of an inspiration to this collective rather than an active participant. I’ve seen a few of Les groupes Medvedkine’s productions, the ones I was able to find on the internet and some, like the beautiful cinema poem Le Traîneau-échelle (1971) are memorable. My sense is that this group was less dogmatic than Cinélutte although Grant makes few comments on the relative worth or quality of any of the films under discussion in this book. The last chapter briefly analyzes Groupe Cinethique, a collective that Grant writes was “among the most theoretically rigorous” (151) and had some success, their Quand on aime la vie, on va au cinema in competition at the 1975 Cannes film festival.
There is an interesting moment in the first chapter of Cinéma Militant in which Grant references an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma writer and film director Jean-Louis Comolli in 2012. Comolli, after having recently re-watched several of the films under discussion here concluded that they were “simply bad films.” Grant takes Comolli – and by extension those who share this view – to task for not coming to terms with his “‘inner bourgeois’ – that beast that could not let quality be wrested from its canon” (28). This is an important moment in the book, both for what Grant says and for what he leaves unsaid. A good example of revolutionary film, according to Comolli, would be the documentary by the collective Le groupes Medvedkine, La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (1968) a ten-minute short chronicling the end of a strike at the Wonder plant, a battery maker in a suburb of Paris. I’ve seen the film. Thanks to YouTube and Vimeo, a few of the films Grant describes are available for viewing, some even with English subtitles, most in scratchy, sub-par reproductions. To my eye, La reprise is a “bad” film, embodying all the worst elements of cinéma vérité – just “hanging around” as Frederick Wiseman has said – filming a dispute between a woman who doesn’t want to go off strike and the union leader who is trying to persuade her to go back to work. The whole thing is introduced by a ponderous male French voice which is all that passes for contextualization. It seems more like a scene than a film. Grant seems to agree with me about the film, calling it a “documentary that was left undone” (29), but for very different reasons. He argues that since the film concentrates on the angry woman, instead of the collective, instead demonstrating “unity between students and workers,” it makes it a failed endeavor or, to use the more bourgeois term, a “bad film.” One thread I sense in Grant’s book is a struggle between what he calls aesthetics and dogmatism. If I can take away any lesson from the cinéma militant movement it is that over-duty to one’s political beliefs results in “bad” filmmaking. I’m not sure Grant would agree with that conclusion, but I don’t really get a sense of what conclusion Grant is making about this historical time other than “It happened, and then it ended.”
This is one of the only times in the entire book where Grant takes a position on anything. More often he acts as a reporter, listing films, filmmakers, collectives, publications, and dates with equal importance so that it’s difficult to know what is most important. The general sense I got in reading Cinéma Militant is that of cacophony, endless quotes from writers and filmmakers, proclamations and Marxist dialectics, many plot summaries or descriptions of scenes from films, many names of people and collectives and publications, sketches of historical events (a few redundant, one, pp. 100-101, on facing pages) but little sense of historical narrative, little sense of how these various individuals, texts, and collectives fit together outside of geography (France) and time (’68-’80). Although Columbia University Press’s imprint Wallflower Books are handsome paperbacks with a generous selection of images, in this book the images are small thumbnails. There are many images of magazine covers and intertitles, a case of more not necessarily being better. Perhaps fewer images at a larger scale might have made engagement with this book easier. Likewise, the print is tiny which suggests that rather than editing for length the press printed smaller. I believe Grant when he states in his introduction that there is a dearth of writing on the subject of cinéma militant. And this book will probably be very valuable for French film historians who wish to know more about the period of ‘68 and directly afterward. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to garner much readership outside this specific academic specialization.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.