Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Six hours in the Commune

We know the shape of a film or news broadcast - and we have a sense of how long each takes. Feature films are expected to fit a comforting story arc. Even if the events are distressing, the shape contains it neatly and, as they come towards their end, we have, at least, the reassurance of completeness and inevitability.

Every so often a story breaks that pattern and the effect can be shattering. I first noticed this in a play that began like a folk tale: Once upon a time there was a king who had three daughters. And he said to his daughters, "I want to know which of you loves me most." The story span on with cruelty, madness and violence but finally the wicked acknowledged their guilt and were punished. I could relax into the comfort as resolution. "The gods are just," one of the characters remarked, and later, "The wheel is come full circle." And then King Lear entered with the dead body of Cordelia in his arms. That was beyond the comfort of tragedy. "Is this the promised end?" "Or image of that horror?" It doesn't matter who is speaking - the voices pick up the horror of the audience, denied the expected reassurance. Very few dramatists take risks like this - and no other Shakespeare play does.

News stories have a pattern too. Some years ago, I heard a lecture by a speaker who pointed out that the news we watch on television has its own pattern. He told us that the pace and rhythm of news broadcast dictated what we were told. Stories that didn't fit the familiar pattern were discarded. And complete news broadcasts also had to fit a familiar shape so that the news, however disturbing, would also comfort and reassure. He pointed to the pattern that began with the "big story" and ended with an amusing item, followed by the weather. He looked at the structure of broadcasts, the summary at beginning and end, the use of single newscasters or newscasters working in pairs. He said that the news was so carefully shaped to the familiar structure that we couldn't detect the difference between truth and falsehood.

It seemed a pretty radical idea and I wasn't sure about it. However there were two factors which made me take him seriously. Firstly, he suggested we could carry out a small task to demonstrate the truth of his assertions. He talked about the speed of edits in the visuals from news stories. He said that no sequence lasted longer than six seconds without a cut - and suggested we go home and time them. He said that with such short sequences we couldn't easily ask important questions such as: Where is the camera? Who is filming this and why? Is this live film or stock footage? I timed sequences in the news that evening. He was right. Then I recorded a news broadcast. I watched and analysed it sequence by sequence. I started asking the questions the speaker had suggested. Since then, I've never felt the same confidence in TV news.

There was a second reason to take the speaker seriously. Many years before, I'd seen two films he had directed for the BBC. They were brilliant. The first was called Culloden and the second was The War Game. Peter Watkins talked a little about it. The film was made in black and white in 1965 with a mostly amateur cast but wasn't shown on BBC until 1985. Its subject - the possible effect of a nuclear attack on the town of Rochester in Kent - was judged too damaging to public confidence and, after consultations with the Home Office, the BBC announced that the film would not be shown. Eventually there was a screening at the National Film Theatre as well as a U.S. release. This meant that The War Game was eligible for the Academy Awards. It won the 1966 Oscar for best documentary feature. Peter Watkins said that, before representatives of the BBC could get up to collect the Oscar - which goes to the producer, not the director - he got up, made a speech and picked up the Oscar. I saw The War Game at a CND-sponsored screening ten years later. It still hadn't been on general release and there was a possibility that screenings were illegal. It was one of the most powerful and thought-provoking films I had ever seen. After he had made it, Peter Watkins never worked in England again.

Last weekend, I went to see Peter Watkins' most recent film, made in 1999 about the Paris Commune of 1871. I've wanted to see it ever since I first heard of it but this is the first screening I've ever seen advertised. I'd heard it was long but it was only when I bought my ticket that I discovered it lasted 5 hours 45 minutes. There would be an interval, I was told. I made a salad in a box and brought strawberries with me - perhaps not the most sustaining food.

La Commune is a huge film in every way. It has a cast of 220, mostly amateur actors. And it breaks many rules of film-making.

To begin with, the film declares itself a film. Two actors show the audience round the set, built in an empty warehouse. We're introduced to one of the central, fictional themes: in this recreation of 1871, television exists. The Versailles government influences the broadcast media so, in its early days, the Communards set up their own TV station. We watch the Versailles broadcasts as they misrepresent events. We watche people in the Commune watching TV - some prefer the broadcasts from Versaiiles. Then we see that the Commune broadcasters, without being asked, alter events to fit the usual rhythm of news broadcasts - they need to keep an audience. They wonder whether to ignore stories that make the commune look bad.

The events of the Commune aren't the backdrop to a love story or a small domestic drama as it would be in Hollywood. We follow a few individual stories in the 11th arrondissement but the focus is on complex political events and the effects they have on many different people - and, briefly, on society as a whole. Intertitles outline historical events and every so often a black screen gives the audience time to pause and reflect. The actors, who prepared for the film by researching the Commune and their roles, seem to improvise - or live - their roles.

I was tired before I reached the cinema and, towards the end of the first part, my concentration started to flag. But I returned (with peppermint tea) for part 2.

In the second half of the film, debates about the commune grew heated. The actors moved from conditions at the time to their relevance to 1999. There were discussions about women's rights, global economics, the need for action. I was riveted. Here were people considering their own time more clearly because they saw it through the lens of history - and, having researched what happened, they were impassioned about the events of history.

It's not an easy film or a tidy film. It offers more questions than answers. It's about the Commune and the media and the process of film-making. It's about history and what people think when they research the past and consider the present. It's history as hope and muddle and disastrous cruelty.

If you get a chance, see it. Go for the long version. You'll probably find it tiring. You may find it irritating. It's not a comforting film. It risks being condemned for its length, the facts it conveys, and its occasional repetitions. However, it looks marvellous - like early photographs come to life. The actors don't seem like amateurs; they inhabit their role. La Commune challenges the audience and cosy assumptions about what a film is. And there's no safe reassurance at the end.


Anonymous said...

Blimey, this is interesting. I've felt for many years now that tv news is so very odd, along with how the papewrs inform us. Two miles from here a young man weighted himself down in the mud for the advancing tide. His suicide was never reported. His misery should have borne some good, not to be ignored. kllrchrd

Anonymous said...

Actually from my experience what is worse is the local news both tv and papers - at least up here in the North East.

KateJ said...

Wow, I'd love to see that film about the Commune... which has been a great interest of mine ever since the centenary back in 1970, when a local left-wing historian organised a series of events about it. I've visited many of the notable sites in Paris, (and once even won a school prize for writing a sonnet about it.)
I remember Peter Watkins' Culloden, when it came out, and saw it again fairly recently. Very impressive. But I didn't even know that he'd made a film about the Commune, so I'm rather ashamed of my ignorance.

Kathz said...

Peter Watkins has faded into obscurity - that's what happens to people who stand out against the system, I suppose. But every so often he manages to get money to make another film - I've only seen four of his films and they've all had a big impact.

It's possible to get La Commune (Paris, 1871) on DVD second-hand but I don't know if it's subtitled. I found the French pretty clearly spoken but the subtitles helped. That makes it slightly more accessible than the Bill Douglas film Comrades (about the Tolpuddle martyrs) which I saw once on TV. I've been trying to see it again and have had no luck in securing a copy, even when I asked the Bill Douglas Centre at the University of Exeter. If you look at the entry on you'll see many reasons why the film should be shown.