Le fond de l’air est rouge / Seeing red with Chris Marker, seeing film with Jonas Mekas

A poster from the May 1968 student and worker protests in Paris which takes as model student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, expelled from France as an ‘undesirable’ and later elected to the European parliament as a leader of the Green movement.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager on January 20, 2012 and newly edited for today’s publication.

After 15 years of following and reviewing the offerings of New York’s 40+ year-old Anthology Film Archives, easily the best and bravest cinematheque in the United States and one of the top in the world, I think I’m finally beginning to understand what Anthology artistic director Jonas Mekas (a determinedly idiosyncratic independent avant-garde filmmaker in his own right, and founding piston of the SoHo scene of the 1960s) and his colleagues are up to, or rather, how they’ve chosen to manifest it. Historically partial to fiction and less engaged by documentaries, at first I wasn’t particularly keen on the preponderance of the latter at Anthology. But after watching Chris Marker’s “Le fond de l’air est rouge” (cryptically translated as “Grin Without a Cat,” an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat) and Sergei Loznitsa’s “Revue” and “Blockade,” all screening in “The Compilation Film” series beginning today at Anthology, I understand that what Mekas and crew are primarily interested in is film that knows it’s film and that fully exploits the medium — and even expands it. Or to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard’s imperative: One shouldn’t come away from a film feeling like the director simply set his camera before a stage, but that he used it like writer uses a pen.

Witness Marker’s film. Issued in 1978 and ‘re-actualized’ in 1993, “Le fond de l’air est rouge” (more literally translated as “The base of the air is red”) takes as its direct subject various liberation struggles and anti-War crusades of the ’60s and ’70s, many with post-World War II roots. And Marker’s conclusion might seem discouraging, even potentially paralyzing, particularly in the dawn of a new movement essentially founded on the same claim, a more just distribution of wealth: By Marker’s account, all these movements, or if you prefer, The Movement, eventually failed, often because of the faulty execution of the theology which was its fount, Communism. Che Guevara, we’re told in the film, seems to have finally understood that the real enemy was power, whether it called itself Capitalism or Socialism. The Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968 seems to have woken up Cuban leader Fidel Castro to the fact that Communism was not a de facto guarantor of Democracy, and could sometimes even menace it, as we see during poignant footage in which Castro wrestles in real time — while delivering a speech denouncing the Soviet Union’s sending tanks into Czechoslovakia — with the realization that he must condemn the Soviet invasion, even as he acknowledges that such criticism will play into the hands of “Imperialist” countries.

Perhaps most incredible, in the light of 2011, is a French Communist leader who finally allows, speaking in 1970, that the French Communist Party might just have to collaborate with other parties on the Left to defeat the bourgeoisie. The Communists barely broke 1 percent in the 2007 French presidential election, and in 2012’s they’re not even fielding their own candidate, preferring to back an ex-Socialist Party member. One person who seems to get it right in the film not too long after the events is Larry Bensky, the Pacifica Radio paragon and former Paris editor of the Paris Review, whose powers of analysis often have less lag time than most historians. Interviewed sometime in the 1970s, resplendent in John Lennon circa Abby Road long hair and beard, Bensky says that even though it may seem like there is less activism in the 1970s, today’s activists have already learned a lesson their ’60s predecessors didn’t, the necessity of working together with other groups. (Or what’s known today in 2021– and mocked in neo-Liberal French circles — as “intersectionality.” Une fois de plus, Larry, you nailed it avant l’heure) Even observing the weight Marker gives to French union leaders, both in direct interviews and in footage from demonstrations, is a jarring contrast with the present reality, when few private sector workers belong to unions and many union leaders seem more interested in securing their terrain than effectively advancing a worker-friendly agenda.

Add to the chronology of events covered by Marker the killing of Che, Watergate, the assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende, and — if I understand his thesis correctly — the lack of any real legacy from France’s May 1968 student movement (although it is moving to see a young Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. “Danny the Red,” hold forth in 1968 from the perspective of 2012, when he’s still an influential counter-balance to Capitalism-centric Euro-globalization, as co-president of the Green group in the EU Parliament), and Marker’s evident conclusion that it all whithered away with the disintegration of Communism, and the film might seem depressing… on the editorial level anyway.

Why, then, does “Le fond de l’air est rouge” leave one feeling optimistic?

What’s inspiring about this film — and makes it fit into the Anthology Film Archives mission, as I understand that mission — is how gorgeous, original, and genre-expanding it is as a film. (Marker was, after all, the director of the haunting futuristic photo-film “La jetée.”) To be honest, I was not up for yet another golden-aura’d ’60s re-cap. I even felt that having lived the era as a child growing up in San Francisco, I didn’t particularly need a refresher course and Marker wouldn’t teach me anything new. But with techniques including variously tinted sepia tones — brown, orange, red — as well as his skittish minimalist electronic score, the interweaving of end of WWII footage, film of demonstrations all over the world, direct interviews, speeches of the epoch seen on a television in a darkened room, and even a slow-motion scene from a Chinese propaganda ballet with a woman in red slowly pirouetting and being turned and lifted by a man, Marker has created a real work of art.

Marker has also brought perspective to this story, so that it’s not just a nostalgic replay of protest marches. The immediate perspective is Vietnam, and here Marker begins with harrowing footage that pre-dates WikiLeaks’s release of audio revealing American helicopters mowing down civilians and even a journalist: We see and hear American bombers dropping bombs and Napalm on Vietnam, with the narration provided by one of the pilots, who could not be more excited than to be dropping napalm on “Vietcong” and seeing them flee their trenches into the open. He might be exulting over fireworks at a 4th of July picnic.

The bigger context is of course how most of these movements fit in with the larger dream of Communism, and its gradual erosion. Here “Le fond de l’air est rouge,” discouraging as it may be as an obituary for the movements of the ’60s, offers a ray of hope from the ashes, if I can mix my metaphors: Cynics like to say that the Movement des Indignes, or “Occupy” movement as it’s called in the U.S., doesn’t know what it wants. But in fact it’s the movement’s very freedom from a specific dogma that may be its salvation. Dogmas can be anchors, but they can also be anvils.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s