Battle of Algiers / Burn
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The Palestinian-American academic Edward Said praised the Battle of Algiers (along with Pontecorvo's other film, Burn!) as the two films "...stand unmatched and unexcelled since they were made in the 60s. Both films together constitute a political and aesthetic standard never again equaled."
One has to wonder what Gillo Pontecorvo thinks about his current American revival and our eagerness to find lessons in his films. Pontecorvo remains a dedicated man of the left, one of three famous brothers (ten siblings in all) from a large Italian Jewish family in Pisa. All three suffered under the anti-Semitic restrictions of Mussolini’s regime and fled Italy. Bruno, a protégé of Enrico Fermi, was a world-class physicist whose work contributed to the making of the atom bomb. He defected to the Soviet Union in 1950. Guido, one of Italy’s leading geneticists, escaped to Britain, where, ironically, he was interned as an enemy alien. He eventually became a professor, then the head of the genetics department at Glasgow University and a leader in his field. Gillo, the youngest of the three, was a leader of the Milan Resistance during the Second World War. Writing for his party’s underground newspaper, L'Unità, Gillo dedicated himself to organizing, from factory workers in Turin to network of communists against fascism, which he described as the cancer of humanity. Like many in his generation he believed that communism was its only cure. After the war, he returned to Paris as the representative of Italy in the Youth World Federation and the Communist-backed World Federation of Democratic Youth.
When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, Pontecorvo resigned from the party but did not abandon Marxist politics. He brought his political commitment and his many talents—photography, journalism and music composition—to filmmaking. The Italian neo-realism of Rossellini inspired him. His goal as a director was to be three parts Rosselini and one part Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. In his third film, The Battle of Algiers, he succeeded.
The Battle of Algiers
The Battle of Algiers ought to find a place in the history curriculum of the schools and universities because of its usefulness to link the past and present and for telling a story of colonialism from the perspective of people that Frantz Fanon termed the wretched of the earth.
La battaglia di Algeri, which focussed on the Algerian War of Independence against the occupying French, caused great controversy in France, where it was banned for five years after the government objected to its sympathetic treatment of the Algerian rebels. Its co-star and joint producer, Saadi Yacef, was one of the leaders of the Algerian Liberation Front. The film depicts a cycle of escalating violence and torture as revolutionaries of the National Liberation Front attack fellow Arabs and the French police, who then retaliate, only to provoke more attacks.
Battle proved so convincingly Neo-Realist that it features an on-screen disclaimer asserting that no documentary footage appears in the film. Adding to the realist air is Pontecorvo’s refusal to take a moral position; the torturing French paratroopers and bomb-toting, café-obliterating Algerian housewives are all one to him. He’s depicting a struggle, showing us the historical wheel as it turns, and his dispassion (though he’s kinda rooting for the Algerians) makes Battle timeless in a way that more overt agit-prop could never be.
Pontecorvo’s 1966 film is a product of the global anti-imperialist response in the 1960s which linked the struggles in Algeria, Vietnam, and Angola as well as in Latin America. Many alienated Western youth identified with this insurgency against capitalism and colonialism. Some joined radical organizations such as the Weather Underground in the United States, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Red Army Faction in West Germany. A 1968 alliance between students and workers almost toppled the government in France, and that same year the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia challenged the Soviet Union, an “empire” that many radicals perceived as even more reactionary than American “imperialism.” In the words of Bob Dylan, it did, indeed, seem the times were “a-changin.’”
The film was made after extensive preparation and achieves its uniquely documentary-like effect by the use of little artificial lighting, special film stocks, and the feeling of actuality obtained by shooting real people in real locations. Among Mr. Pontecorvo’s special concerns was the music for the film. As collaborator on score with Ennio Morricone, he tried to keep the music in mind during the filming of every scene in order to retain the rhythm of the action and often whistled the music during scene rehearsals, to the amusement of the crew.
The Battle of Algiers was controversial as soon as it came out and has continued to cause controversy. its legend grew as it was used as a kind of training film by both urban guerrillas and the authorities trying to suppress them. The Black Panthers studied the film in the 1960’s, and in 2003, months after the war against Iraqi insurgents began, the Pentagon screened the film for military and civilian war planners.
In a 2004 interview with The International Herald Tribune, Mr. Pontecorvo said he had found the Pentagon’s interest in the film “a little strange.” The most “The Battle of Algiers” could do, he said, is “teach how to make cinema, not war.”
Battle of Algiers deals with the outcome of hundreds of years of colonial oppression. Burn!, set in the 1840s Caribbean, addresses the roots. Like Battle, Burn! (originally titled: Queimada) is a tragedy of historical and personal inevitability. Once again, Pontecorvo makes his loyalties (barely) known, but stands back to let the wheel turn. With an odd calm, he presents one atrocity after another. Some are physical, some moral, some emotional. Each, however horrible, is presented as the inevitable collision of entrenched culture and the new paradigm arriving, either via the barrel of a gun or thanks to someone’s pernicious self-interest (or, you know, both). Yet Pontecorvo remains a teacher, not a preacher. Burn! hews to the Neo-Realist aesthetic: show the world as it is, let the audience sort it out.
The screenplay offers two men as incarnations of irreconcilable historical forces. Marlon Brando plays William Walker, an English intelligence agent sent to a Portuguese-controlled Caribbean island to foment a native revolution. His revolution’s goal is to displace the Portuguese monopoly and turn the island into a British trading zone. Once he convinces the former and current slaves that such a revolution is possible, however, they develop goals of their own.
Pontecorvo nails the hard truths. Burn! is a quietly bleak, unflinching presentation of slavery, post-slavery racial hatreds, the role of race in political power and the colonial manipulation of all of the above. Pontecorvo takes on these themes so clearly and directly—while keeping them secondary to the drama of the narrative—that Burn! becomes a lesson in how few other films ever address them at all.
Visually, Pontecorvo abandons the scruffy conventions of Neo-Realism, and how. Opening with a montage of psychedelic blood-spattered images over one of Ennio Morricone’s weirdest, most exhilarating songs—a deranged amalgam of 1969 Euro electronic space-jazz and soaring African chant—the film self-consciously pursues beauty for its own sake. Using dense color-saturated film, the camera lingers over lush Caribbean vegetation as it does over unspeakable slums and Graham Greene-like tropical brothels (circa 1840s). Pontecorvo’s camerawork in Battle is austere and understated; here it’s full of movement and experimentation.
For all his ruthless political insight, Pontecorvo’s no Eisenstein. He edits with restraint and a minimum of cuts. Most shots—save the usual back-and-forth in conversation—are self-contained narratives, stories in themselves. He sets a scene and then zooms or pans to the punch line. Early on, we see the bloody dead bodies of Portuguese soldiers lying in the dust. Pontecorvo pans slowly from the corpses to a mob of ragged fugitive former slaves smiling wildly and dancing joyously with their rifles held high. They’re dancing because they’ve discovered, after 200 years of slavery, that white men die as easily as black. Or, more pointedly, that African slaves can kill Europeans. And—payback being a what?—that knowledge brings ecstasy.
Prescient and germane ain’t the half of it. Vietnam was raging when Burn! was made. And there are moments clearly designed to evoke that war. The British fire endless cannon into an apparently empty and indifferent jungle. Black soldiers hunt their own kind in service to the white colonial bosses. The revolutionaries suffer incredible privation but come out fighting. With Vietnam long gone, these images of a war of culture and of race, of old orders overturned and of Western bafflement in the face of murderous hatred, offer up a new, but hardly unfamiliar, set of references. Others might say the story is "torn from today’s headlines." I’d say it predicts tomorrow’s. And has for the last 35 years.
This is historical atrocity made visible. Despite the movie’s flaws, crowd scenes reflect the stunning collaboration between Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone, whose music for Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns is well known to American moviegoers. In Queimada Morricone combines African rhythms with Gregorian chants, creating an original and inspired score. And Pontecorvo, a serious student of Bach who had learned from Eisenstein that a crowd could be a character in film, makes masses of people move across his screen to the rhythms he hears in his head. Nowhere in film is the surging pageant of humanity more compellingly portrayed.
Pontecorvo leaves us with the feeling that the only avenue open to the wretched of the earth is violent liberation fueled by anger. This is Marxist political history seen through Fanon’s lens of racism. And since it was being made during the Vietnam War there are also allusions to that American misadventure. Indeed, Pontecorvo’s political-historical ambition proves to be more than a feature film can contain and more than his artistic imagination could coherently express. Queimada is a flawed masterpiece that confused audiences and marked the end of Pontecorvo’s significant contributions to film.
There were failures in the conception and execution of Queimada, but there was worse to come in the editing and final production of the film. Pontecorvo had made a pact with the devil Hollywood. United Artists had earlier offended the Spanish government and its dictator Francisco Franco, who then banned one of its movies, to great financial loss. The risk-averse studio insisted that Pontecorvo fictionalize his history and turn Spain into Portugal. Instead of the Spanish word “quemada,” the Portuguese “queimada” was used for the name of the island and the title of the film. The studio executives also decided that “burnt” would have no resonance for American audiences. They renamed the film Burn!, crudely calculating that the rallying cry “Burn, Baby, Burn!” in American urban riots of that time made it salient.
After the success of The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo was able to cast Marlon Brando as the star of his film. That may have been his most significant mistake. Pontecorvo never recanted his opinion that Brando was the greatest film actor ever, but he would later describe the man as a little crazy. Brando was a method actor who had learned to find his characters within his own increasingly tortured psyche. Pontecorvo was a neo-realist whose casting decisions were based almost entirely on actors’ faces and physical presence. Both men were leftists and perfectionists in their own ways, and by the time Queimada was completed they despised each other.
Before the 1950s T-Shirts were considered only for use as an undershirt. This loose fitting, typically cotton, fabric would help collect sweat and keep your nicer, outer layer, dry and presentable. Two things changed the way society saw T-Shirts: the end of World War II and the talented acting of Marlon Brando.
It wasn’t until the 1951 film adaptation of Tennesee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning stage play, A Streetcar Named Desire premiered that people began to see the T-Shirt in a different light. If you don't know the story, a fading Southern Belle who has run out of luck moves in with her sister Stella in the French Quarters of New Orleans. Stella fears the woman’s arrival may be less desirable to her husband Stanely (played by Marlon Brando). Stanely is a brutish, strong headed male with primal instincts and hard hitting force. The story follows the three characters through conflicts and delusions, fighting and love.
Most importantly to us, though, it changed the way people viewed the T-Shirt. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of a lower class, brute, yet handsome man was commonly seen wearing sweaty T-shirts and not much else. As Brando was a bigger actor of the time, the T-Shirt was finally seen as a fashionable, stand-alone, outer garment. As society tends to do when an impressionable celebrity makes a new fashion statement, it is imitated and repeated to mirror the mystique and coolness of that person. Soon after the movie’s premiere, men all around America were proudly wearing T-shirts and the rest is history.
The Polish School of Posters & Jerzy Flisak
Beginning in the 1950s and through the 1980s, the Polish School of Posters combined the aesthetics of painting with the succinctness and simple metaphor of the poster. The posters that were created during this era combined the aesthetics of painting with vibrant colors, personality, slogans, humor and metaphor. Many of these posters embodied artistic movements including Expressionism, Surrealism and Dada. It was in this way that the Polish poster was able to make the distinction between designer and artist less apparent.
The posters camouflaged and hid commonly understood ironies and beliefs that were secretly shared with the public. They showed the hidden story of creativity under oppression. The Polish poster became a small beacon of resistance. Posters quickly became a medium that allowed for freedom of expression while still maintaining social purpose.
Jerzy Flisak was one of the greatest artists from the Polish School of Posters. He was an illustrator and artist who became known for his satirical drawings. Flisak’s posters are sloppy. The illustrations are painted negligently, naïvely, with thick brushstrokes. Nevertheless, this way of painting is the source of their great power and, when combined with Flisak’s inexhaustible humour, it results in surprising diversity. Flisak used colours with great lightness. He also applied creative typography, clever cropping, different stylistics and historical references, and varied his techniques.