2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, fall 2016
Producing revolutionary history on film:
Henri Lefebvre’s urban space and
Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871)
by Hamish Ford
Visual essay: the Paris Commune on film
[Editors' note: Text only version is on two pages. Click here to go to page 2]
Following extensive on-screen text introducing viewers to the Paris Commune and its historical context, assuming little or no knowledge thereof (in reflection of this event’s relative obscurity in France and much of the world), the first moving image we see in La Commune (Paris, 1871) is an extremely self-reflexive one. Including some key actors and even the film’s director with his crew, what will become a 6-minute hand-held travelling shot snakes through a single, subdivided set—in reality, an outer Paris warehouse, within which can be seen a large TV studio-style lighting rig and other filmmaking materials—at a moment presented by on- and off-screen voices as post-dating both the Commune’s bloody end and the film shoot itself.
The film’s first hour establishes La Commune‘s very particular mix of performative modes, most prominently via the direct-to-camera address of the pro-revolutionary “Commune TV” reporters and their various vox populi-style interviews carried out within a very loosely recreated working-class 11th Paris arrondissement, and select other locales. Equally important are lengthier discussion-based scenes featuring ordinary citizens of the Commune, or more precisely the largely non-professional actors playing them, increasingly referencing the present tense of the film’s own production, asking what can be learnt from the Commune’s history through the combined experience of collaboratively educating themselves about it and making the film.
As the Commune reaches its violent end, more and more working-class Parisians take up arms and build barracades in its defence from the increasing military assault by national government forces, including the many women portrayed by the film as together playing a crucial role within this short experiment in radical politics. During the chaotic final days, frequently armed Communards also become increasingly impatient with the TV reporter, questioning even such favourable media’s power, and asking why he doesn’t fight to save a political project he claims to support.
While the final assault on Paris is rendered by the film through evocative images but without explicit violence, the summary executions of up to 30,000 men, women, and children by troops under direct order of the national government are given extensive discussion via both on-screen text and by actor-participants speaking in the present tense. Meanwhile government leader Adolphe Thiers addresses the National Assembly at Versailles to announce the army’s successful military destruction of the Commune, with his words sometimes accompanied by images of Communards being rounded up, complimenting the army of restoring “humanity” and “civilization” before emphasizing the need for the enemy to be “legally but unrelentingly” punished. Ringing in viewers’ eyes, ears, and minds is both the atrocity of what became known as semaine sanglante (‘bloody week’) and its immediate historic ramifications in France, Europe and beyond, but also comparative statistics cited via text screens suggesting that fundamental inequalities over which the Commune was largely fought are today more extreme than ever.
Introduction: producing revolutionary history on film
“What would remain of the Church if there were no churches?...[A] revolution that does not produce a new space has not realised its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses.”
—Henri Lefebvre [open endnotes in new window]
“In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world... The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born.”
“What the media are particularly afraid of is to see the man in the little rectangle replaced by a multitude of people, the public.”
—La Commune (Paris, 1871)
In this article I write about the political, conceptual, and filmic staging of revolutionary history as a consistently energizing force invoking past, present, and future, with a focus on how such a process plays out within urban space in response to recent history and my chosen filmic case study. I begin by setting up the theoretical context by way of Henri Lefebvre’s pioneering work, starting with his particular account of modernity’s philosophical tensions, before drawing on more recent scholarship on the potential revolutionary reappropriation of the city and responding to global events of the last five years. I then go on to examine in detail La Commune (Paris, 1871), a collaborative, nearly six-hour film directed by Peter Watkins in 2000, which deals with the historical and ongoing relevance of an important yet often shrouded urban uprising and brief experiment in revolutionary democracy spanning March-May 1871 known as the Commune de Paris or “Paris Commune.” This film’s remarkable sound-images, I argue, play out across a mix of historical frames concurrently material, mythic, theatrical, and multiply reflexive in their presentation of space and time.
Seen through La Commune’s prism, with its special form of time travelling, revolutionary thought and action have an increasingly trans-historical impetus in both force and meaning. La Commune allows us to perceive history as a “palimpsest.” By this I mean that here is a text of film-history invoking and frequently confusing the loose narrative’s particular period setting and associated historical context on the one hand, and the reflexively marked textual layers and aesthetic filmmaking aspects of the work’s own production period on the other, with some intervening historical details also thrown into the mix. The viewer then adds further customized layers to this already palimpsestic work, borne of her particular historical and spectatorial situation, plus any additional knowledge of developments since the film’s completion and limited reception. She thereby sees, or senses, through the historical layers concurrently, undermining any simple linearity. Such multi-temporality is implicitly present when watching any film. However, it is absolutely central to La Commune’s basic internal operation, and even viability.
The film privileges a centrally collaborative mode of performance. This pertains both to the project’s 220 on-screen participants—largely non-professional actors who together researched and work-shopped the Commune, then largely improvised their dialogue during the shoot—but also the precise audiovisual form through which this process is rendered by the film itself, and the highly participatory relationship subsequently engendered with spectators. In this way, it provides the sound-image record of a very particular filmmaking and educational process driven by autodidactic learning, both group-based and individual, on screen and off, and the collaborative and from the start inherently self-conscious “performance” of a rather suppressed history. If La Commune can be characterized as offering a unique example of reflexive political cinema, however, it also only really comes alive with customized viewer collaboration.
La Commune constitutes a complex fusion of cinema and history that is perennially seductive, a film forever both real and fantastical in its resonance for our still-new 21st Century. At the same time, we are reminded—by the film, subsequent history, and our own spectatorial moment therein—that viable revolutionary change constantly threatens to slip away in the face of seemingly immovable state opposition and private capital’s corporate interests, ultimately backed by military force—no matter what historical context we emphasise. The film also gives multiple voice to a very real wavering human belief not only in revolution’s very possibility but also its precise desirability and how we as individuals would likely act in the event of its occurrence. Such an experience chimes very much with what Henri Lefebvre saw as two ultimately irreconcilable energies driving 20th Century modernity, the impacts of which we continue to experience in the first two decades of the next. On the one hand, there is a radical critique of the social and political status quo that calls our urgent attention, driven by hope in the possibility of building a better future. Lefebvre suggests that such a critique is associated with the long shadow of Karl Marx’s still—and we could today say newly rejuvenated—trenchant analyses of the inherent inequities and ethical regressions of everyday life as lived within ever more extreme capitalist systems. On the other hand, we experience a seemingly contrary energy, that of an intimate, perhaps inescapable shattering of belief, which concurrently both enables and undermines the modern world’s very possibility. This kind of critique emanates from a discourse strongly indebted to Friedrich Nietzsche.
The article is divided into two parts, each with smaller sections for ease of reading navigation. Part I presents Lefebvre’s particular account of modernity’s irreconcilable character as it informs his increasingly prescient analysis of urban space and revolutionary possibility, which I follow with an updated discussion of these topics as they play out in the real world over recent years. Accompanied by select numbered images, Part I thereby sets the theoretical and historical scene for Part II, which begins by introducing the story of the Paris Commune followed by its most substantive cinematic treatment, La Commune (Paris 1871). The remainder of the article comprises a sustained cinematic analysis of the film, accompanied by 60 stills, tracing how this remarkable, multiply-collaborative work presents, analyses, and provokes anew the above themes and ongoing questions.
Part I: Updating Lefebvre and the city
Henri Lefebvre’s irreconcilable modernity
Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher whose diverse and voluminous work spanned the 1920s up to his death in 1991. Lefebvre had a substantial influence within France, due in part but not limited to being the most high profile intellectual closely associated with the Parti communiste français (PCF, or French Communist Party). From 1928 to 1958 he was a member of the Party but was also an internal and subsequently external critic thereof. Upon its eventual but very partial translation, his work has been selectively important for Anglophone scholarship in the areas of sociology, architecture, geography, urban studies, and literary criticism. Such disciplinary incorporations are rather at odds with the multiple interests addressed within even a single text by Lefebvre, not to mention his work’s consistent critique of academic specialization. In addition to the above subject areas, a single article or book by this writer offers discussions of political science, philosophy, avant-garde art, and more. When English translations of his writing gradually began to appear in the 1960s and 70s, cross-disciplinary research and overall philosophical discussion of such diverse fields was often looked down on within the traditional Anglophone scholarly world. Meanwhile, within the context of 1960s and 70s then-extensive radical Marxist academic culture itself, Lefebvre’s work was also often ignored or dismissed as representing a humanist, Hegelian Marxism decidedly out of vogue—as opposed to the structuralism of Louis Althusser and Roland Barthes, the favoured models for rigorous “updated” Marxist theory. Suffice to say, poststructuralist theorists found little use for his work either. The result was that during his lifetime, Lefebvre was never as well known or fashionable in the Anglophone world as other prominent post-war French intellectuals.
The year of Lefebvre’s death saw the emergence of two translations that would see an important if still rather selective upsurge in his work’s impact on English-language scholarship: the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life (originally published in French as Critique de la vie Quotidienne, 1947) and The Production of Space (originally La Production de l'Espace, 1974). Upon complete eventual translation the Critique of Everyday Life trilogy (the second and third French-language volumes originally published in 1961 and 1981 respectively) have perhaps had most impact on sociology and more politically engaged cultural studies, while The Production of Space has had substantial influence within urban studies, architecture, and geography, as well as some of the humanities. Nonetheless, despite Lefebvre’s relative posthumous salience, Stanley Aronowitz suggests that the decidedly late and piecemeal Anglophone engagement with his work remains “a classic case of mis-recognition” for being a determinedly separate, discipline-bound understanding of a philosophical writer whose treatment of a variety of subjects “transgressed the disciplines, especially the relation of philosophy to the social sciences and art.” In The Production of Space, Lefebvre’s various philosophical, historical, cultural, and overarching political interests coalesce around the central figure of urban space. “The overriding theme” of this magisterial book, writes Aronowitz before quoting from it,
“is Lefebvre’s contention that space is not an ether, a container that has the force of nature. The idea that space is pre-given is vehemently denied. Space is social as well as a property of the natural world but in the slow course of historical (capitalist) development, ‘everything in terrestrial space has been explored and nearly everything has been occupied and conquered.’”
Such a cross-disciplinary study of space, with sustained attention given to cities, would appear highly relevant to academic film studies. Yet although we have seen significant film scholarship on the close relation between cinema and the modern city for many years now, and most extensively within cinema history itself, The Production of Space and Lefebvre’s other writing on space—both urban and rural—has on the whole enjoyed surprisingly little sustained application.
Pulling together Lefebvre’s extensive thinking and writing about the city going back at least to the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life (written immediately after World War Two), The Production of Space offers a sustained overview of the transformation of space in the 20th Century throughout France and Europe, essaying its conceptual and philosophical as well as political and social ramifications and complexities. While the book has had some real influence within various academic disciplines, Lefebvre’s big-picture address can easily bypass such selective appropriation. Its philosophical starting point is the description of modernity as characterized by the irreconcilable twin narratives provided by Marx and Nietzsche. This amounts, he writes, to a “historicity driven forward by the forces of productive… revolutionary rationality”—the Marxist legacy—butting up against “the cyclical, repetitious space-time of death and life”—the Nietzschean element. Highlighting the stark opposition, Lefebvre continues:
“Nietzschean time, as theatre of universal tragedy, as the cyclical, repetitious space-time of death and life, has nothing in common with Marxist time—that is, historicity driven forward by the forces of productive and adequately (to be optimistic) oriented by industrial, proletarian and revolutionary rationality.”
Both in Lefebvre’s work and arguably within Western intellectual and political culture itself, this irresolvable tension would never become a new “thesis” by which to achieve further progress (in this sense having more in common with Theodor Adorno’s “negative dialectic” than more traditional “Hegelian” dialectical models). In Part II ahead, I will explore the notion that a viable sense of revolutionary possibility may, while never overlooking such apparent irreconcilability as described by Lefebvre, be kept uniquely alive within the quintessentially modern and “virtual” form of the cinema as forever attuned to and engaged with the multi-layered currents of real, ongoing history—a modern history inevitably itself fundamentally affected by and refigured through 120 years of audiovisual culture. In our times enjoying renewed “real world” investments and connections, revolution both on screen and beyond can be seen afresh as a forever-returning motivating dream, yet as handed down by the perennially doubt-inducing moving sound-image—be it a “film” such as La Commune or today’s 24-hour television and diverse online coverage of global events. This is a dream, I argue, with which it is difficult to confidently assert our own individual relationship and possible role within.
Lefebvre himself was mindful of how revolutionary change and the militarized capitalist state that resists it both participate in the fundamental shattering of belief so central to the political and cultural dimensions of Western modernity. While most clearly a Marxist, here lies the less obvious importance of Nietzsche’s crucial legacy to Lefebvre seen as a modern philosopher. If ultimately irreconcilable, these two 19th Century philosophers’ work provides the crucial background for the account of power and its resistance found in Lefebvre’s writing. He states in The Production of Space,
“the violence of power is answered by the violence of subversion. With its wars and revolutions, defeats and victories, confrontation and turbulence, the modern world corresponds precisely to Nietzsche’s tragic vision.”
Completing a key passage, Lefebvre goes on to apply this Nietzschean figuration in predicting revolutionary uprising as the inevitable correlative of state oppression:
“State-imposed normality makes permanent transgression inevitable. As for time and negativity, whenever they re-emerge, as they must, they do so explosively. This is a new negativity, a tragic negativity which manifests itself as incessant violence. These seething forces are still capable of rattling the lid of the cauldron of the state and its space, for differences can never be totally quieted. Though defeated, they live on, and from time to time they begin fighting ferociously to reassert themselves and transform themselves through struggle.”
Such writing—the tenor and language of which again gets close on the surface at least to more globally influential work by Lefebvre’s infamously “pessimistic” German near-contemporary, Adorno—sets the philosophical scene by crystallizing his work’s particular relevance to my topic and concerns. Just as violent, oppressive political forces, both national and transnational, brought about an earlier “rattling [of] the lid of the cauldron of the state and its space” in the case of the Paris Commune, as I will go on to address, we can see important connections to events over recent years in our global cities, and even through recent electoral politics. As argued in Part II, La Commune demonstrates cinema’s unique ability to provoke such trans-historical connections with uncommon force.
Reappropriating the city, revolution’s impossible ground
Since 2010, the interconnected fields of urban-based and online discourse around the theme of revolution have returned to prominent mainstream attention with striking international impact, albeit often via superficial mass- or social-media narration. There remains, of course, understandable scepticism about what “revolution” means in an era when state-enforced capitalism dominates the ideological position of all large political parties and media outlets in the West, especially when the same institutional discourses sometimes claim to condone it—only in non- or “anti”-Western countries, of course. Nevertheless, and no matter how unlikely it seemed a decade or so ago, recent events spanning the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and beyond, have featured urban space as a prominent site for the staging and performance of diverse but at least in part genuine revolutionary fervor. In country after country, major urban centers have been host to public expressions of disgust at a national and global status quo.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the totemic site invoking a revolutionary mood in the Middle East and North Africa soon dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ by Western media, particularly when 18 days into their January 2011 occupation of the square Egyptian protester’ were successful in demanding that Hosni Mubarak – the dictator who had ruled Egypt with US support for 30 years – finally relinquish power. Urban-based revolutionary activity erupting in the West later the same year had a more explicitly socioeconomic focus. Inspired by recent anti-austerity activism in Spain, the self-named ‘Occupy Wall St.’ protests began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park during September 2011 before spreading to other major US cities and beyond. These sizable demonstrations focused on escalating inequality resulting from mainstream political parties’ long collusion with global capital and ongoing imperial militarism. With more than half the world’s people now living in big cities, it is not surprising that such disquiet would be expressed within nations’ symbolic, political, economic, and increasingly demographic centers. In the process we have witnessed an escalation of sporadic attempts at reappropriating urban space itself.
If the shape and political identity of any would-be revolutionary change over the last half decade is now less clear than ever, urban spaces provide a necessary real-world stage, with online social networking and media—both “alternative” and corporate—the necessary “virtual” agent. Yet these spaces are increasingly disconnected from the city’s more centralized pre-21st Century incarnations. With their radically expanded dimensions, major cities have become so spatially and demographically reconfigured that the current population’s experience—notably for a vast majority living far from the traditional center—has little connection to the experimental and romantic-modernist cultural heritage of city life in earlier periods. This heritage was famously extolled and encapsulated by writers like Walter Benjamin in the 1920s and ‘30s and before him, most important of all, Charles Baudelaire in the 19th Century.
Today, experience of the city is increasingly disconnected and dispersed, stemming from the economic realty that most people now can’t even conceive of living in historic, often gentrified inner regions, and may never visit such spaces. At the same time, our diverse experience of urban culture becomes exponentially globally networked via different online mechanisms, which have become an increasingly important ‘virtual’ space transcending centre-periphery models of space and communications.
Many occupants of today’s metropolises, especially in the non-Western world, work in big cities by necessity more than by choice, and they are decidedly non-permanent inhabitants thereof when it comes to official status and basic living situation. This has often been the case throughout history, escalating sharply as national economies became decreasingly agrarian-based. Nevertheless, the city is today a very different beast when it comes to sheer size, design, and functionality, compared to even two or three decades ago. For basic demographic, technological, socioeconomic, and political reasons, the city increasingly holds the key to any possible revolutionary change. This is both despite and due to the fact that most of the 20th Century’s major revolutions were historically non-urban in origin, often for the very same reasons that present day city-based radical movements face apparently immutable opposition. More than ever, exponentially fused state and capital power, which has operated increasingly free of traditional political regulation, permanently occupies and “owns” the heart of our major globalized cities. As the world’s broad urban population continues to explode, the more potential pressure such a huge mass of humanity can potentially apply when it comes to “reclaiming” the reality they live or work within, and often build.
In Lefebvre’s terms, such a “reclaiming” is expressed through his famous, resonant phrase: the “right to the city.” Such an idea and possible movement, he suggests,
“cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life.”
Strongly influenced by Lefebvre’s work and very responsible for his Anglophone reception as an urban studies theorist, influential British Marxist David Harvey has long been interested in the transforming nature of cities and their potential for revolutionary “reclaiming.” In Rebel Cities (2013), Harvey writes that while the city’s fabled centrality
“has been destroyed… there is an impulse towards and longing for its restoration which arises again and again to produce far-reaching political effects, as we have recently seen in the central squares of Cairo, Madrid, Athens, Barcelona, and even Madison, Wisconsin and now Zuccotti Park in New York City.”
In the three years since Harvey’s book, things have changed once again, reminding us of the absolute precariousness of any revolutionary potential. Zuccotti Park has been silent since being cleared of protesters by police, starting in mid-November 2011 and into early 2012. In early 2016, however, it was home to a ‘phone bank’ for Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, his supporters seeking to cop-opt the ‘revolutionary’ aura of four years earlier for what in the US context amounts to a very unusual ‘socialist’ insurgency inside the USA’s notoriously right-wing two-party system, a campaign the success of which for a long time defied all conventional wisdom.
But while cities can perhaps be, for a short period at least, sites of potential revolutionary unrest, such episodes remind us that their daily role is to be home base for state capitalism’s political and “security” power, as we saw with the eventual police eviction ordered by city officials of many “Occupy” sites in the United States and elsewhere. Revolutionary potential is always a fragile and ambiguous affair that breathes only so long as the city’s real bosses’ tolerance holds out. Nonetheless and explicitly following Lefebvre, Harvey suggests that despite yet also due to the apparent ongoing immutability of global cities as home to state capitalism’s power, in whatever form it may take in a given context, the epicenter of potential revolutionary change is increasingly urban space.
In many respects the results of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” movements Harvey and many other more famous leftist writers (such as Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek) have gestured toward and loosely supported are far from clear. When it comes to the activism itself, within Anglophone countries there has been a clear dissipation since 2013. However, in south continental Europe things are rather different. Here prominent activism continues, driven by the ongoing impact of extreme “austerity measures” inflicted upon majority populations by national governments seeking to curry favor with Europe’s real economic and political masters immediately to the north, in an extreme anti-Keynesian response to the global financial crisis that began in 2008. In addition, important flow-on effects can be charted between this significant ongoing activism—frequently urban-based and, while quite diverse, most prominently displaying a leftist orientation—and electoral politics itself. Parties and groupings unambiguously more radical in their agenda than Europe’s traditional center-left “social democratic” parties have had unprecedented recent successes in major opinion polls and increasingly now in national elections. The first sign of this development occurred in Greece. Following early 2015 Greek elections, the left-wing grouping called Syriza formed a national coalition government. This unprecedented victory for such an avowedly leftist force, outflanking the formerly major center-left PASOK party in regards to both policy and overwhelming electoral support, was directly due to Syriza’s unambiguous critique of austerity measures demanded by the “Troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) that had caused such large-scale deprivation for much of the population over recent years. Sustained activism against previous Greek governments enforcing such a program played out very prominently on the streets of central Athens and other major cities. Following the continuation of these EU bailout programs by Syriza itself upon being elected (resulting from decidedly unequal negotiations with Troika representatives and the German Government), in late 2015 such activism escalated again.
In Spain, for much of 2014 and 2015 opinion polls suggested the country could be on track to vote in its own radical—in this case anarchist-inflected—leftist government led by the Podemos party at late 2015 elections, following real success at European Parliament and municipal levels. Podemos did not pull off the spectacular victory in December that its more hopeful supporters thought possible (despite fluctuating polls), with the governing conservative People’s Party (PP) receiving the most votes but not enough to form government. Even so, for a party with unambiguous activist origins less than two years old, the result—gaining 20% of the vote (nearly as much as the mainstream centre-left PSOE party)—was significant. A second national election in June 2016 again resulted in no clear winner—despite the PP increasing its support overall, while the PSOE stagnated. Despite Podemos having successfully presented itself as the main left opposition party for much of the six months leading up to the second election (helped by the PSOE undergoing internal crises) while the country remained at a political deadlock, and now part of a larger left-wing alliance (including communist elements) called Unidos Podemos, it again received fewer votes than expected (21%, barely an advance from 2015). Perhaps in light of the thus-far failed Syriza experiment leftist Spanish voters, and especially the urban activists who in many respects initially fuelled the early success of these new political organizations, lost faith that even proclaimed anti-austerity parties are capable of reversing policy course—irrespective of whether their intentions are genuine—such is the fundamentally undemocratic reality of the Eurozone.  As of September 2016, again no grouping appears capable of forming a stable governing coalition, and a third Spanish election in quick succession remains quite possible.
In neighbouring Portugal, at October 2015 national elections both new and older leftist parties together won the majority of votes, only for the country’s conservative President to instead invite minority right-wing parties to form a government, prompting much national and global outcry. A month later this new right-wing government was defeated on the floor of the parliament in a no-confidence motion by the majority left-wing members, following which the latter announced a new governing coalition estimated by one conservative news source to be far more radical and anti-austerity than Syriza ever was. The much debated success of Syriza in Greece, a new and more avowedly anti-austerity government in Portugal, and the possibility of a significant role for Podemos in Spain, together make for a common story of political movements with strong activist and radical-left roots going from electoral non-existence or irrelevance to parties enjoying the highest or second total level of support in the country within less than a few years. In all three cases featuring youthful leadership with prominent activist histories, these parties’ escalating popularity has been built directly on the initial, sustained rejection of the Troika-mandated “solutions” to the global financial crisis by long-term protest action starting and often continuing in its most visible form through the extensive occupation of public spaces across southern Europe’s major cities and beyond.
Challenging space, history that hurts
Writing in the early 1970s of the enormous challenges facing what he calls the production of space in any kind of potential revolutionary sense, Lefebvre states that up to now the West
“has generalized and globalized violence. Space as locus of production, as itself product and production, is both the weapon and the sign of the struggle. If it is to be carried through to the end—there is in any case no way of turning back—this gigantic task now calls for the immediate production or creation of something other than nature: a second, different or new nature, so to speak. This means the production of space, urban space, both as product and as a work, in the sense in which art created works. If this project fails, the failure will be total, and the consequences of that are impossible to foresee.”
Escalating with his own move to Paris in the mid 1950s (to take up an academic appointment) and a close but testy relationship with the Situationist International, Lefebvre’s work increased in its focus on the city as a key potential site of the revolutionary reappropriation and production of space. This updated Marxist focus on the city, Harvey writes, put Lefebvre at odds with
“conventional Marxist thinking, which had never accorded the urban much significance in revolutionary strategy, even though it mythologized the Paris Commune as a central event in its history.”
Harvey explains that especially in light of Lefebvre’s own study of the Paris Commune, La Proclamation de la Commune, published in 1965 (not yet translated into English)—which in certain respects closely echoed the Situationists’ March 1962 text, “Theses on the Commune” (leading them to accuse Lefebvre of plagiarism, resulting in a dramatic falling out)—he knew
“that revolutionary movements frequently if not always assume an urban dimension. This immediately put him at odds with the Communist Party leadership, which maintained that the factory-based proletariat, who lived and worked in rural or banlieue areas, remained the vanguard force for revolutionary change.”
Bill Brown, long-time author of self-described “Situationist inspired” U.S. journal NOT BORED!, argues that as a Marxist focusing on the city, Lefebvre was actually breaking new ground, and that there was “very little in Karl Marx's works—even in the later, ‘mature’ writings—from which to offer a properly Marxist critique of the city.” Suggesting Lefebvre effectively “borrowed” the Situationists’ critique to update Marxist thinking about urban space, Brown goes on to quote from Lefebvre’s Le Droit à la Ville (Right to the City), written during 1967 to mark the centenary of Marx’s Das Kapital:
“Marx did not show (and in his time he could not) that urbanization and the urban contain the meaning of industrialization. He did not see that industrial production implied the urbanization of society, and that the mastery of industrial potentials required specific knowledge concerning urbanization. Industrial production, after a certain growth, produces urbanization, providing it with conditions, and possibilities. The problematic is displaced and becomes that of urban development. The works of Marx (notably Capital) contained precious indications on the city and particularly on the historical relations between town and country. They do not pose the urban problem. In Marx's time, only the housing problem was raised and studied by Engels. Now, the problem of the city is immensely greater than that of housing.”
While Lefebvre may have been at odds with some prominent intellectual and institutionalized Marxism of the time, his work on cities has enjoyed gradually increasing, if still rather corralled and selective, impact outside France. Even so, and despite all the evidence of recent years, Harvey maintains,
“it is still the case that much of the traditional left has had trouble grappling with the revolutionary potential of urban social movements.”
In light of recent global events and their political ramifications both in the activist and party-political electoral contexts I have described above, in addition to basic demographic and labor force facts, we can see how Lefebvre’s focus on the city was indeed prescient. As Harvey writes,
“In much of the advanced capitalist world, the important and ever-expanding labour of making and sustaining urban life is increasingly done by insecure, often part-time and disorganized low-paid labour. The so-called ‘precariat’ has replaced the ‘proletariat’. …The fading of the urban-rural divide has proceeded at a different pace throughout the world, but there is no question that it has taken the direction Lefebvre predicted. … The mass of humanity is increasingly being absorbed within the ferments and cross-currents of urbanized life.
This mass urban workforce exists across both Western cities, with increasing migrant populations from the “developing,” often former colonial world, and within the much larger metropolises of India and China. With an increasingly global flow of capital and outsourced employment, the common factor among workers is often less a question of what nation-state they live in and more whether they reside in large cities networked via capital’s most powerful hubs. These financial hubs remain largely, though not entirely, in the West, with the East coast of China (the heart of which remains Hong Kong) increasingly important. [I.14]. The working class in Western capital cities is then exponentially made to “compete” with this vast, more poorly paid, global urban workforce.
The uniqueness and relevance of Lefebvre’s work in this area, taking in its political and more philosophical dimensions (always interconnected), is made especially clear when we consider the traditional privileging of time found in prominent “modernist” accounts of history and the advent of modernity. In a discussion of Fredric Jameson’s work, for example, media theorist Alexander Galloway argues that thinkers such as Jameson (an influential theorist of modernity and critic of postmodernity with an audience far larger than his Marxism would initially suggest) often emphasize temporality and the pre-eminence of history per se as “classic modern categories” that can be charted from the Enlightenment tradition of Kant through to Marx and beyond. Against this longstanding tendency, three or four decades ago much influential Humanities scholarship in Anglophone countries shifted the focus onto space, in a move often associated with the advent of “postmodernism” as a historical and analytical-theoretical development. Within film studies, while academic culture in some regions during the 1980s and 90s embraced the debatable tenets of postmodernism more than some others, our new century has seen a gradual but definite re-focusing of work around temporality in large part due to Deleuze’s two cinema books, Cinema 1:The Movement-Image and especially Cinema 2: The Time-Image, and—to a large degree thanks to Deleuze—the resurgent influence of Henri Bergson’s philosophy. Like Peter Watkins (as I will discuss), Lefebvre fits into exactly none of these academic flows. A deeply but not at all naively utopian thinker whose work displays precisely no postmodern aspects, his emphasis on space also sits at odds with much Marxism and modernism—the political, cultural, and philosophical traditions with which he is otherwise most properly connected.
While Lefebvre’s explicit focus remains space, as a Marxist, “history” far from disappears in his work, both in its temporal and material senses. In fact, what Galloway calls “the punchiest line” from Jameson’s 1981 book, The Political Unconscious, applies equally to Lefebvre, the Paris Commune, and La Commune (Paris, 1871), for properly articulating the conflation of temporal and spatial violence: “History is what hurts.’” Galloway writes of Jameson’s “evocative expression” that it means
“two things at once. First, when history is reified or mystified it sets real limits on individual or collective practice. Yet at the same time history is the badge people wear designating the struggle or hurt endured."
One very particular event in the West’s modern story that exemplifies such a multi-dimensional understanding of history is the Paris Commune. Here history “hurts” first of all in the form of the Communards’ own internal and external struggles, both ideological and military, throughout the Commune’s very short life. And its protagonists certainly “hurt” as a result of a military siege and in the vicious reprisals accompanying its violent cessation at the hands of firing squads or through incarceration.
Official, often state-sanctioned history in France and elsewhere, defined as so often in the West in terms of heroic individual men’s actions, comprises the “reified or mystified” version of past events comprising the narrative of nationalism. Such narratives necessarily evict a literally collective and local yet also decidedly internationalist experiment and experience as the Paris Commune, an exemplary victim of such definitions of history. Surviving Communards and later sympathizers thus wore their own alternative version of history in the form of a mournful and in some ways romanticized “badge” marking the ongoing hurt of a history excised by its official winners. The Communards sought to remind France and the world what really happened, and somehow tried to give the Commune’s central ideas some ongoing life. In her recent book tracing the Commune’s motivating principles and their various subsequent destinations via key figures, Kristin Ross evokes the Commune’s radical implications—then as now—by way of a resonant term: “decentralizing the flow of history.” Scrawled on a wall at the end of Novyy Vavilon/The New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, USSR, 1929), the late-silent Soviet film dramatizing the events of the Commune, is a famous and simple yet properly palimpsest-like phrase: “Vive la Commune!” In both New Babylon and La Commune these totemic words are also mouthed by men and women on screen—shouted melodramatically, or muttered quietly—awaiting their likely executions.
Re-engaging with the Paris Commune offers us a singularly instructive case study through which to prompt, exhibit, essay, and critique Lefebvre’s idea of the production of space in a would-be revolutionary context—its tantalizing possibility and inherent, perhaps intractable problems. The most immediate, complex, and updated means of doing this, I propose, is to focus on the performative audiovisual rendering of such a “history that hurts” as especially alive in time-travelling, palimpsestic form throughout La Commune’s truly expansive, reflexive, yet also strikingly intimate cinematic treatment.
Part II. La Commune (Paris, 1871)
The Paris Commune — a totemic, shrouded, impossible event
The Paris Commune is hugely important in the history of revolutionary politics, and has at times been invoked in relation to the recent urban-based uprisings that I discussed in Part I. Yet the story of “the Commune”—shorthand for the revolutionary uprising and subsequently elected radical left-wing administration than ran Paris from 18 March to 28 May of 1871 in defiance of the national government, and the activities of its diverse supporters—remains perhaps not especially familiar to many present-day readers. Therefore, I will begin Part II by summarizing this shrouded history, including crucial prior and subsequent events, before introducing the director of its most substantial cinematic treatment, Peter Watkins, then La Commune (Paris, 1871) itself. The remainder of the article offers a sustained account of and response to this unique film in light of the historical and theoretical discussion so far.
Between September 1870 and January 1871 Paris was under siege by German military forces, the drawn-out finale to the Franco-Prussian War. The siege’s deprivations escalated a sharp distinction in France between Paris and other major cities on the one hand, and much more conservative, largely Catholic rural areas on the other. Characterized in its numerous working-class arrondissements (districts) by a combination of increasing left-wing ferment, progressive republicanism, and resistance to the threat of occupation, the French capital was defended throughout the siege by the nearly 300,000-strong forces of the National Guard, rather than the official French Army. Life in Paris was extremely tough with severe shortages of food, firewood, coal, and medicine during a very cold winter, with populations in the many poorer areas resorting to eating rats. The city was virtually cut off from the outside world. With poverty skyrocketing and a 100% increase in the mortality rate during the siege, many of the increasingly jobless population joined the National Guard, earning daily wages that could buy “a lettuce or a dog's brain,” as viewers of La Commune are told via one of its numerous white-on-black text screens. The Guard would soon go on to constitute the Commune’s core military defense and play a significant role in its politics.
Bitterly opposed to the newly elected and now largely monarchist National Assembly (France’s parliament), the National Guard had its own democratic structure as a federation of elected delegates. The organization’s primary aim, La Commune informs us, was two-fold:
“To defend the Republic against a Prussian invasion or a Monarchist Restoration.”
On 26 February 1871 Chief Executive of the national government, Adolphe Thiers (a conservative Republican, rather than Monarchist), signed the Treaty of Versailles with Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck, which stripped France of territory, imposed onerous compensation obligations, and paved the way for German troops to enter Paris. Thiers became increasingly concerned at the National Guard’s growing ties with revolutionary political forces in the capital. His fears were soon confirmed when on 15 March the Guard elected a
“Central Committee, rejecting all Government authority… More than just a military force, it becomes a political power serving a revolutionary ideal.”
Everyday life was becoming increasingly dire as a result of the very high unemployment rate and serious effects of the siege when it came to basic services and provisions. That situation and the widespread political ferment in the city also lead to a more fundamental structural critique of the inherently unequal socioeconomic system within which the majority working- and under-class population lived. Left-wing militancy escalated via “red clubs” and various revolutionary arrondissement committees, especially in the poorer areas, supported by or including many National Guard battalions.
On 18 March, three days after official notification that the Guard had refused national government authority, Thiers’ military forces (the remains of the defeated French Army) were sent on a mission to seize its cannon (in the plural, observing the period-appropriate term) but were famously foiled at Montmartre. These weapons were either bought at great expense (thanks to contributions from poor arrondissement residents) or taken by the Guard during battles with Prussian forces on the city’s outskirts. At Montmartre, local women appealed to and fraternized with the soldiers, resulting in Thiers’ troops refusing to fire on the unarmed civilians, symbolically upending their guns. This famous incident accelerated a general insurrectionary mood in the city. National Guard forces soon took over most central arrondissement town halls. Meanwhile, two of Thiers’ military commanders were captured and executed by a combination of mobs, Guard members, and defecting members of his own troops. In light of the escalating situation, the conservative National Assembly decamped to the symbolic space of Versailles (invoking pre-Revolutionary France of the pervious century), soon followed by Thiers and his ministers, along with the remaining military. The film suggests that so hasty was this retreat, “several regiments were forgotten in Paris.”
The National Guard Central Committee then quickly moved to occupy the abandoned Hôtel de Ville (Paris’ equivalent to City Halls in the United States) and announced imminent municipal elections. On 26 March, various radicals and left-wing Republicans received sufficient total votes to establish a secular, loosely socialist Commune with no single governing political party or coalition. The Commune de Paris was officially declared two days later. Moving into the Hôtel de Ville, this new municipal government proceeded for two months and ten days to administer the capital in line with a radical social and economic agenda in explicit defiance of the National Assembly led by Thiers. Such an already Herculean task was made far harder by a new military siege now enforced by the latter’s troops. It began with sporadic shelling of the city in escalating assaults from the west. (Following their demoralizing retreat from the capital, the government’s military forces had regrouped at Satory, a camp near Versailles, where the national Army was gradually rebuilt. Prior to the final assault on Paris, these forces would be bolstered by returning POWs from the Prussian war.)
The Commune’s policy agenda included the following:
In addition to improving the material quality of life for the majority population, or setting out how to do so, both in its official policy objectives and everyday citizens’ discourse—as amply seen in the film—the Commune stressed the need for citizens to pursue everyday pleasures resulting from increased leisure hours, such as access to art and creative outlets. When it came to children and adults alike, writes Francis Mulhern, the Commune in this sense saw education as a life-long concern, emphasizing development of labour-force skills but also access to the world of culture:
“[T]he ethos would be integralist or ‘polytechnical’, aiming at the harmonious development of the person, developing individuals capable of skilled labor and an active cultural life. ‘He who wields a tool should be able to write a book, write it with passion and talent’, went one statement of the ideal—or at least ‘take a break from his daily work through artistic, literary or scientific culture, without ceasing for all that to be a producer’.”
If the only change brought about by a revolution is in the workplace (which is hard enough to achieve), then the fundamental values upon which everyday life is organized have themselves not been altered. This is a central proposition La Commune suggests throughout—especially in the lengthy discussions featuring everyday citizens, in particular women, which dominate much of the film’s lengthy running time.
Lefebvre stresses the same principle in his writing on both city and rural space throughout Critique of Everyday Life and elsewhere. Aronowitz succinctly summarizes this important position maintained here and across Lefebvre’s work:
“If the old regime remains in force at the level of the family, personal relations, especially sexuality, and the structure of authority at the workplace, if the routines of repetitive everyday existence are preserved, if life is bereft of pleasure and desire is related to the dream work but is denied in the everyday, nothing much has actually changed. … [A] grim, productivist society in which the individual is ‘over repressed’ almost inevitably becomes a ‘terror society,’ which is exactly what happened to the Bolshevik revolution after the seizure of power.”
This summary of a fundamental point in Lefebvre’s writing also evokes well the more idealistic aspects of the Paris Commune’s stated principles as well as its impossible challenges, more problematic moments, and highly truncated reality. The Commune’s enormously ambitious program predated by many decades, and in more radical form, the first national welfare-state reforms emerging in Europe over 60 years later. But it was more explicitly claimed—just as Marx prophesized—to inspire the Russian, Chinese, and other 20th Century revolutions and resulting communist regimes, with the Commune's anniversaries regularly commemorated at official levels despite the fact that (unlike Paris in 1871) such revolutions lead to states utterly dominated by single communist parties wielding absolute political and military power. The fragile and ultimately inappropriate papering over of the inherent tension between the Commune’s democratic, non-party-lead nature and these later “official” revolutions and militarized states became somewhat clearer upon the declaration of a “Shanghai People’s Commune" on 5 February 1967 in the full flush of China's Cultural Revolution, when the city’s official Communist adminstration was overthrown.
Declaring itself based on the Paris Commune yet also crucially different, due to many key leaders' alliance with Mao and the Cultural Revolution against the majority Communist party (rather than the city itself), the Shanghai Commune lasted less than a month before being killed off by factionalism (a rival ‘New Shanghai People’s Commune’ was soon declared) and finally due to Mao's televised decree on 24 February that it would transform into the ‘Revolutionary Committee of Shanghai’ (and thereby serve what would become the gradual rapprochement between Maoists and the China's majority Communist political and military elites).
Stressing the tension between the Paris Commune's still vital radical utopianism and the future twin 20th-century spectres of moderate (and eventually even more watered down) welfare-statism on the one hand and single-party authoritarianism (and resulting factional warfare) on the other, La Commune strongly evokes the constant threat of its elected government’s slide into centralized power, oppressive security measures, censorship, and the general nightmare of a “terror society” at a time of depravation and civil war. These political conflicts are increasingly palpable throughout the film as it develops. But so, too, is everyday people’s resistance to this threat and their concurrent resilience in discussing how best to liberate themselves, both at work and at home.
All this was soon brought to a violent end by way of the national state’s very real terror, when on 21 May Thiers’ troops began their final, definitive assault on the city. In what became known as semaine sanglante—“bloody week”—huge numbers of men, women and children were massacred across Paris. The Commune’s leadership abandoned the Hôtel de Ville, setting fire to it as they fled, before temporarily taking up residence in the Town Hall of the 11th arrondissement, the representative working-class district primarily featured in La Commune. Its walls were drenched in blood, the film tells us. Estimated numbers of those who died during these final days range from 10,000 to 30,000, the majority summarily executed on the spot. The last gasps of resistance occurred in the 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements—all majority poor neighborhoods. Communards who escaped the firing squads fled France, were forcibly deported, or imprisoned. Upon the Commune’s successful destruction and its supporters’ mass murder, incarceration, or deportation, a government inquest into the cause of the revolutionary uprising found lack of religious belief a prime factor. Along with the mass executions, the first stage of Paris’ “moral restoration” was completed when 4,500 Communards were sentenced to jail in the French colony of New Caledonia. But while this theoretically expunged the city of its human sinners, the metropolis itself needed to be “exorcized.” The resurgent Catholic Church proceeded to build Sacré Cœur, triumphantly looming over Paris from Montmartre to this day, “to expiate the Commune of its sins.”
The force of France’s conservative-Catholic restoration was felt far beyond the given historical context and national borders. A late text screen from La Commune sums up the immediate and longer-term ramifications:
“Throughout Europe, the specter of the Commune justifies a repressive policy towards social movements, not only by Bismarck and the monarchies but also by conservative republics, existing and to come.”
Meanwhile, the Commune had received scandalous coverage in the USA, made clear by an unintentionally prescient and chilling New York Times editorial quoted in the film:
“Let Versailles turn Paris into a mass of ruins, let the streets become rivers of blood, let all the population perish, so long as the Government maintains control and demonstrates its power. May they crush all signs of resistance, whatever the costs, so as to give Paris and France a lesson they will remember and enjoy for centuries to come.”
Beyond Europe—then at the height of its colonial exploits, with France a central protagonist—Thiers’ vanquishing of the Commune inspired him to send troops to violently quell local uprisings in the North African colonies that had escalated at the height of the Commune, demonstrating both the Commune’s contemporary global significance and colonial-era context. Following their defeat, Berber prisoners were sent to the same New Caledonia jails housing former Communards. For Thiers’ conservative Republican politics there was, apparently, an even lower level of depravity and potential threat to establishment right-wing France (and Europe) than that represented by the Communards. One purpose of deporting the latter in such numbers to New Caledonia, it appears, was in the hope that they would help “civilize” the native Kanak population. In 1880, most of the revolutionary French nationals received amnesty. The anti-colonial Berber fighters, meanwhile, remained behind bars until 1895.
In the section devoted to the Paris Commune in Passagenwerk/The Arcades Project (compiled between 1927 and his death in 1940), Walter Benjamin quotes a passage by one F. Mehringl. Looking back in 1896 on the Commune 25 years earlier as the last, and would-be corrective, gasp of the “official” French Revolution of 1789-99 that in the event gave rise to modern “bourgeois” France, Mehringl writes:
“With the fall of the Commune, the last traditions of the old revolutionary legend have likewise fallen forever… In the history of the Commune, the germs of this revolution were effectively stifled by the creeping plants that, growing out of the bourgeois revolution of the eighteenth century, overran the revolutionary workers’ movement of the nineteenth century.”
Most subsequent commentators and some from the period have agreed that the Paris Commune was doomed from the start, especially in light of its relative isolation. Most famously, Karl Marx wrote on the subject in The Civil War in France, first published as a 35-page pamphlet in London on the 13th of June 1871, (a cautionary quote from which is excerpted to explain the Commune’s destruction in the Communist Manifesto’s 1872 preface) and subsequently reprinted, later emerging in enlarged book form with additional material by Marx. In spite of its bloody defeat, Marx argued, the Commune was something of a forerunner of hopefully more successful future social revolutions, which would learn from its successes and failures, as would theoretical work on the topic.
Harvey writes that like many other radical thinkers in the intervening years, Lefebvre also “knew full well” from this history that
“socialism, communism, or for that matter anarchism in one city is an impossible proposition. It is simply too easy for the forces of bourgeois reaction to surround the city, cut its supply lines and starve it out, if not invade it and slaughter all who resist (as happened in Paris in 1871).”
As with mainstream historical awareness and established political commemoration, alongside even the “successful” Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban and Algerian Revolutions, the Paris Commune’s very short lived experiment—despite or because occurring in the West—is rather less familiar to the majority of film audiences than are the French and American Revolutions. This is to be expected for some of the reasons I have discussed. Even so, there exists a lengthy history of not especially well-known films encompassing different lengths, both narrative and documentary in nature (La Commune fits into neither distinction), primarily focused on this event.
Siegfried Kracauer writes emblematically in From Caligari to Hitler:
“The technique, the story content, and the evolution of the films of a nation are fully understandable only in relation to the psychological pattern of that nation.”
While funded by French and European sources, and featuring extensive collaborative French involvement in the form of its crew and large cast, La Commune is also the product of an expat British filmmaker and thereby in part an outsider’s contribution to a not especially visible historical, political, and filmmaking tradition. Following descriptions of the semaine sanglante massacres, viewers are told via text screen:
“The French educational system—which denied us any financial help—maintains silence on these and other Commune events. This film is dedicated to French filmmakers who were prevented from making films on this subject.”
The Paris Commune is, apparently, barely taught in French schools and enjoys no particular status within the general population. Something of a “repressed” or disavowed national event, it seems, the Commune also continues sporadically to play a totemic role for non-party political activists around the world, particularly those seeking to occupy public space in the interests of fomenting some form of broad revolutionary discourse and change.
Invoked afresh since 2010 by both Occupy movement participants and older radical supporters from the sidelines (such as Harvey, Chomsky, and Zizek), the Paris Commune nonetheless remains forever in large part a shrouded event: “The Commune as test of the revolutionary legend,” writes Benjamin in summary of his sources in The Arcades Project. Despite being seen—when at all—around the world as alternatively a “failure” or at best an early experiment in developing social policies much later enacted in Scandinavia and then welfare-state Western Europe, or else as a lingering if largely mythic radical inspiration, its lack of prominence in France’s national, republican, and revolutionary psyche is telling.
The Commune seems to represent an important but awkward moment in both national and global revolutionary history that is impossible to appropriate for modern-day France and the global West. This is increasingly so in recent decades, as states—the official ideology of governing parties typically mattering little—enforce with increasing vigour an ever more unequal socioeconomic system without any apparent alternative. While the Commune remains totemic for world revolutionary history and thinking, the events of Paris in March-May 1871 are thereby without official state recognition for the reason that no remotely powerful present-day political force can lay claim to the Commune’s heritage. However in La Commune, its most substantive cinematic treatment, this crucial event comes to light and life in a truly remarkable, time travelling sense.
Peter Watkins’ singular, reflexive vision
Like both Henri Lefebvre and the Paris Commune, Peter Watkins remains a not especially prominent name within the English-speaking world, despite having made two much-discussed medium-length British films dating from the mid 1960s. A brief introduction of this singular figure is thereby in order before quickly moving on to analyze his last completed work, La Commune. Starting with early shorts in the 1950s, Watkins created a series of highly unique, reflexive films for both television and cinema up to 2000 (following which he has thus far ceased filmmaking activity). Fitting neither drama nor documentary definitions but incorporating and mutually complicating elements of both to often-radical ends, in interrogating either past or possible very near-future events these films offer living, contested, and palimpsestic versions of history.
Viewers are forced into active participation with Watkins’ often obsessive charting of a specific and ongoing socio-political, moral, and cultural crisis seen up close through each film’s very particular, local case study that at the same time crosses national and global contexts. Frequently, such context and stories are intimately connected to revolutionary energy and potential, be it personal, social, cultural, or more overtly political. His best known work remains the early BBC productions, The Battle of Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter deals with the likely impact of a nuclear attack on Britain resulting from its Cold War role, and suffered a television broadcast ban for 20 years (despite winning an Academy Award for best documentary). Leaving Britain, since the late 1960s Watkins has had a productive but sporadic, consistently controversial international career, making a series of remarkable films around the world such as Punishment Park (USA, 1970), Edvard Munch (Norway, 1974), Resan/The Journey (made across 10 different countries, 1987), Fritänkaren/The Freethinker (Sweden, 1994), and La Commune (France). The director has nearly always fallen out with the often state-based institutional-production bodies commissioning this work, in large part due to the films’ determinedly charting often subterranean, unflattering aspects of the given national culture, and the state’s frequent subservience to imperial and military power.
Following the pattern throughout his career, after La Commune’s completion Watkins fought lengthy battles with its would-be exhibitors in the face of their rejection of the finished film (including a shorter cut). Such familiar problems appear to have finally taken their toll, with Watkins subsequently retiring from active filmmaking. The film’s full-length version finally received its premiere on French television when most people were asleep. If Watkins’ work typically contradicts the dominant national mythology within a particular project’s national funding/production/cultural context, as the 1960s receded his cinema remained both firmly wedded to historical developments while being also starkly at odds with prevailing ideological currents. This dissonance can be seen in Watkins’ explanation for why he wanted to make a film about the Paris Commune. La Commune and the director’s previous films are far from mere “agit-prop” essays, no matter the clear ethico-political investments and frequent anger exhibited on screen by many participants and the filmmaker himself. Rather, this cinema relentlessly insists on the messy, in-process nature of historical reality in the most immediate, participatory and hopeful sense. The result is less a finished work than a self-conscious, presentational record of such a process, which becomes ongoing as re-engaged by subsequent audiences. With distinct formal methods marked by a unique brand of reflexivity, the films extend way beyond mere self-consciousness to include a properly discursive and “democratic” address enabled by on-screen participants’ debating the contested topic at hand, including either by implication or by direct citing, its vital—although often disavowed—connection to present-day life. Rendered in such a way, history becomes an open, active, collaborative event on both sides of the screen, transcending the frame. So often central to this filmmaker’s cinema, these qualities reach an apogee with his last completed work.
Directed by Watkins, based on a loose treatment be wrote in collaboration with credited researcher Agathe Bluysen, and workshopped throughout a period of months by over 220 mainly non-professional actors before an improvisation-heavy shoot, La Commune (Paris, 1871) is a five hour and forty-five minute, intensely collaborative work. Shot in black and white, this loose re-imagining of the Paris Commune is entirely staged in a large warehouse at Montreuil in suburban Paris, a site reputedly once occupied by Georges Méliès’ studios and at the time of filming usually home to an experimental theatre company. This huge space contains a series of interconnected sets loosely standing in for select streets and building-rows circa 1871, occupied by working-class citizens in the 11th arrondissement and the town hall thereof, with a few other scenes set at Montmartre, an upper-class apartment, the Hôtel de Ville, Versailles, and Satory. However, the filmmakers go to no real effort in concealing the production’s studio-bound, indoor nature. On the contrary, throughout its running time the film emphasizes its warehouse location and the inherent theatricality of the whole enterprise. Despite most of the film theoretically being set outdoors, a large TV studio-style lighting rig is frequently visible perched above would-be normal ceiling height—the sets typically open straight onto the huge warehouse ceiling far above. The only other spaces we see are the “Versailles TV” newsreader’s studio set and a one-angle medium-close up of Thiers as he addresses the National Assembly, the latter never shown.
An absolutely crucial aspect of the film is that only a tiny proportion of its scenes are devoted to showing elected Commune leaders, who are only ever briefly seen having a meeting or giving short speeches to assembled crowds. Comparably more screen time is given to Thiers seen addressing his Assembly. For the vast majority of the film’s running time, we experience the Commune through the everyday people—supporters, detractors, and in-between—of the 11th arrondissement as they meet on the street and in bars, passionately discussing the fluid political developments, the Commune’s proclaimed ideals, and its internal and external problems. La Commune thereby foregoes, or undermines, a version of history as driven by famous figures. Names such as Louis Auguste Blanqui, Eugene Varlin, Louis Charles Delescluze, Élisabeth Dmitrieff, and Louise Michel are all mentioned at various points of the film, and actors portraying them are sometimes very briefly seen (or sometimes they are shown “for real” via photographs), but are almost entirely absent. Rather than such political protagonists or major intellectual figureheads—some combination of which feature in most scholarly historical accounts—the film only grants Thiers much notable attention (still small compared to everyday citizens). But throughout, he is only ever shown via the exact same medium close-ups, a heavily codified media-constructed image. This impression is strengthened further if we consider the possibility, sometimes suggested by the film, that images of Thiers comes to us via the government’s television network feed. This idea alerts the viewer to La Commune’s highly ambiguous nature when it comes to “whose” camera we are looking through at any given time—one of the warring “TV networks,” or “our” film.
In typical Watkins style, we are asked to imagine the forces of present-day propaganda at work via an anachronistic portrayal of mass-media technology. In this film/TV Commune, the conflict plays out partly between two television stations: the government’s own channel, introduced by its reporters as “National TV, Versailles” (later derisively called “Versailles TV” by Communards), and an outlet seeking to represent the Paris rebels upon its first broadcast 40 minutes into the film, known as “Commune TV.” While the latter has already been referred to in retrospect during the film’s highly reflexive very first scene set after both the Commune’s destruction and La Commune’s primary shoot (discussed below), once the central “story” is properly set in train, a scene 20 minutes into the film first calibrates what will be perhaps the most important formal dimension for the remainder of its running time. A reporter approaches government soldiers at their base for interviews prior to the ill-fated attempt to seize the National Guard’s cannon housed at Montmartre. First we hear from some of the officers, who confidently describe the impending mission to seize the 30-strong cannon so as to restore the government’s military and political authority over Paris. However, the interviews are intercut with footage of the same reporter speaking to younger soldiers standing grouped together nearby. Complaining of a lack of food and other material deprivations, they say that they “are not allowed to talk” and do not have the necessary military provisions to take the cannon. Describing the Montmartre orders as “totally vague,” the men state that while largely supporting the principle of disarming the Guard, they will not fire on civilians as ordered. When the film returns to the officers following a few seconds of black screen, we hear that they already suspect their troops will refuse such orders. “Most of them are young recruits,” one comments, “and don’t grasp the need for vigorous action against the red elements.” Five minutes later, following the failure to seize the Guard’s cannon due to government soldiers refusing to fire on the crowed of largely unarmed women, leading to a general insurrection in the city, the reporter enters Paris and speaks to 11th arrondissement locals, identifying himself as being from “National TV Versailles.”
Initially talking to working-class Parisians ecstatic at the insurrectionary turn of events, the reporter describes to Versailles TV’s viewers an atmosphere of uncertainly and concern. He moves on to hear from more upper-class and bourgeois figures, many of whom will become familiar in later scenes. These include a man who says he works for the U.S. ambassador, whereupon the reporter asks with concern how the United States views these events. The bourgeoisie express their worry and fervent opposition to the prevailing revolutionary mood, condemning its supporters. As with nearly all scenes across the film, within a group of people sharing a general—here conservative—position, some diversity is still apparent, such that we hear views ranging from aggressive demands for reprisals through to more moderate concern at the course of events. Soon, pro-revolutionary working-class voices cut in again, articulating what the Montmartre victory means for them. Decrying the reporter as working for “bourgeois TV,” then gesturing to two people in the background, one especially vocal woman cries: “We’ve had enough. We have journalists.” The latter are then asked by the woman to enable an alternative representation of events more reflective of the majority working-class population’s views and interests. Voicing support for the principle, the duo then point out they have no equipment, to which the above woman crucially replies: “That’s why we must do it together, in a different way!”
Initiated by an everyday arrondissement resident, at this moment is born both the idea of a “Commune TV” (she also provides its name) and its principles of more democratic expression whereby everyday people get to have their voices heard. “We have to stop censorship,” a man nearby comments in response to the idea. Less than ten minutes later, we see the same two journalists in front of the camera brandishing microphones for the first “Commune TV” broadcast, explaining they have somehow managed to scrounge sound equipment from storage facilities, but warning us this new media source will not be able to compete with the professionalism of Versailles TV: “We might have technical problems as we lack equipment.” Tellingly, however, a third figure is prominently caught on camera to the right of the frame during this introductory broadcast shot. (See the third image from the visual easy at the start of this article.) We soon learn he is a pro-Commune newspaper journalist critical of Commune TV’s techniques and approach to reporting. Importantly, no explanation is offered for the reporters presumably also having cameras, and—with the exception of a brief glimpse in the film’s first shot—such a camera is never seen on screen. This elision sets in motion to the fullest degree the film’s most slippery, multi-layered reflexivity. It remains for the viewer to decide where, or whether, the cameras of the warring television networks are different to those of La Commune.
Near the end of the film we are told national troops have shut Commune TV down, and that one of its former journalists (who had previously quit, saying he could no longer stomach reporting on illiberal security laws without critical comment) “decides to use his radio microphone to cover events in the 11th district.” Once more, no explanation is given for how he is being filmed. What the viewer would previously have assumed to be Commune TV footage now appears to be the film’s, or vice versa. We might well ask, what of all the other scenes in which reporters don’t appear on screen? Following the early interview scenes, most of the subsequent “Versailles TV” footage is rather more instantly recognizable as such, thanks to twee theme intro music, gravely “objective” desk-bound reporters and professional presentation style, use of what was in 2000 still the standard television broadcast aspect ratio of 4/3 or 1.33:1 (La Commune itself is presented in 1.66:1, so the Versailles TV sequences are “pillar-boxed” with black bars on each side) and even some visual degradation of the broadcast signal.
Commune TV, meanwhile, features no studio-set reporting. Unlike the Versailles TV broadcasts, we see no shots where La Commune’s frame is laid directly over that of Commune TV in broadcast form. Apart form brief scenes where we glimpse such images being screened on small television sets within the Commune, the latter’s footage (where we may venture such delineation) is presented just like that of the film itself—in 1.66:1 ratio, hand-held shots, and without degradation. The extensive Commune TV sequences are entirely comprised of cinéma vérité-type images—in the French sense of the term, stressing the involvement of the filmmakers in the “pro-filmic reality” as opposed to the more objectivity-seeking fly-on-the-wall North American “cinema direct” tradition. These “TV” scenes feature journalists avowedly excited by the socio-political experiment at hand as they report on its development and speak with ordinary citizens on the streets. In both cases, people on screen either consistently or intermittently look right at the camera.
Commune TV does not foreground a deconstruction of mainstream media conventions. In particular, reporters strive to retain some kind of objective, “professional” mode of address—which, as with much more mainstream media familiar to all readers and viewers, seeks in part to obscure the deeply invested way in which news is framed while also declining to enter into analysis and critique. The footage in which on-screen reporters speak straight into the camera and interview people (often also looking right at us), which comprises all of Commune TV’s and the minority of Versailles TV’s footage (the non-studio-bound material, the latter presented as masked for 4/3 broadcast), is presented as seemingly “live”. However, such a contrast is thrown very much into doubt by the fact that we also see sequences throughout the film showing both networks’ footage as screened on television sets within the Commune—in the case of Commune TV in public, and Versailles TV in the private space of a representative bourgeois apartment. (In the rare case that someone is caught watching Versailles TV by a Communard, the former are queried as to their reason for watching reactionary, anti-Commune media.) Glimpsed as a small square frame within La Commune’s own modest rectangular one, in these scenes we finally get a sense of what Commune TV images look like in 4/3 transmission (unlike in the case of Versailles TV broadcasts, the film never shows us this incarnation up close). In one example, people watch Commune TV reporters describing the declaration of the Commune as broadcast on a television set, a transmission-formatted version of footage we saw fifteen minutes earlier “as it happened.” Suggesting the existence of unseen post-production (and therefore editing) facilities, these transmission snippets also yet further undermine—especially for the Commune TV footage, being closest to La Commune’s own aesthetic form—the very status and temporal placement of the film’s “pro filmic reality.” Such frame-within-a-frame, “mise en abyme” sequences also strongly suggest the notion of the Commune becoming very quickly a mediated “virtual” event with no real center.
Most obviously via the presence of on-screen microphones, occasionally television sets, and direct address to camera ascribable to the “TV” aspect of this re-imagined Commune, the film’s overt reflexivity is even more explicitly foregrounded by La Commune’s very first images. Following extensive white-on-black text informing the viewer about the historical context we are about to explore, an unsteady hand-held travelling shot, accompanied by the camera operator’s loud footsteps, moves through what looks like a half-built or half-demolished interior set, starting with a composition featuring materials that could be related to the film (their on-screen or off-screen use is unclear), the theatre troupe that usually occupies the space, or neither. Our camera then moves through a door and into a large sub-divided warehouse space, seemingly in search of filmmaking activity. As the camera veers right we can briefly make out Peter Watkins and a small crew, with one technician looking directly at us, seen from behind and then to the left as the image continues its hand-held forward movement. (A still from this including Watkins, his crew, Commune TV actors, and various filmmaking materials, is viewable at the start of this article’s introductory ‘Visual Essay on Page 1.) In his only appearance on screen throughout the film, the director is seen here sitting behind a camera monitor before ‘our’ camera arrives at its apparent destination directly in front of a woman and a man dressed in roughly period-specific circa-1871 clothes. The film’s sets, a prominent electrical cord, and high-mounted lighting rig are clearly visible behind Watkins, the crew, and the actors.
Looking straight at the audience, the actors proceed to introduce themselves both by their own name and that of the characters they play, informing us that the massacre ending the Commune’s short life has just occurred. The man says:
“I play a TV journalist in this film which deals not only with the Paris Commune, but also with the roles of the mass media in past and present society.”
His female colleague then introduces herself and her character, explaining she plays a “journalist for the Commune TV.” Adding an extra layer of “auto-critique” to the film’s already highly reflexive nature, she foregrounds one of its major themes:
“First, what was quite difficult was that she's a credulous person, a naive optimist, and knowing the end of this story and the events of the Commune, it wasn't easy to keep smiling. Secondly, she likes her work in front of the camera so much that she forgets to denounce and mention the power of the media, which she represents entirely.”
Any notion that this epic film will recreate revolutionary history by seeking any kind of “suspension of disbelief” is from the very start completely undermined in its extremely self-conscious and entirely theatrical or abstract presentation. Introduced in this way and then comprising a single massive “flashback,” such a reflexive resurrection works to produce revolutionary history and space anew, now in the form of a virtual invocation and challenge.
Explaining the warehouse space’s usual function as home to a theatre troupe, the man then says:
“In April of this year, Peter Watkins and 13 Productions started to construct a film set, recreating the atmosphere of the 11th district during the Paris Commune. We would now like to present our work-place during these last three weeks.”
The camera resumes its hand-held walk, now moving beyond the human figures deeper into the set, with the lighting rig still visible at the top of the frame, which now becomes devoid of human presence, including a very large empty space perhaps used to film the military scenes or a result of some sets having been already taken down. The male journalist continues to speak over images showing one of many passageways and rooms filled with furniture, debris, and weapons that we now see in the middle section of the film’s first long tracking shot, which now features tighter framing but still clearly shows the warehouse ceiling and light source:
“Yesterday we finished the shooting and the set is exactly as we left it after the last scene. The following text will be added a few seconds later.”
In due course, as the same shot continues to track through the set, showing an array of interconnected walls, furniture, and props. After a few seconds we hear the advertised audio-delivered “text” (which may or may not have been recorded “a few months later’) presumably spoken by the female Commune TV reporter, now using the present tense but referring not to the time of the film’s production but to that of the Commune’s history immediately following its end:
“Above the barricade flies the tricolor of the Government, replacing the Commune's red flag, which hung there earlier. Outside, a Government officer sat at his table with one and ink, sentencing hundreds of neighbors Communards to instant death by firing squad.”
We are told that these events happened “yesterday evening.” On screen we see a chair and table filled with disheveled paperwork, but no officer or accused Communards, the framing now tighter but with prominent artificial lighting streaming in from above the ceiling-less walls of the set. We hear more descriptions by both Commune TV reporters, speaking of an already spectral and theatrical Commune devoid for now of any human presence. The audience is then finally addressed by the female journalist over more footage of the eerily quiet space (the only sound being the camera operator’s footsteps and off-screen narrators) where we have just been informed thousands of people were killed the previous evening:
“We ask you to imagine that it is now March 17, 1871.”
The film’s first post-text shot has now continued unbroken for over five minutes. After a few more seconds an elderly male voice starts speaking off camera, with the present tense now seeming to be sometime shortly before the Commune’s advent. He describes the 11th arrondissement of Paris, within which he and his family of five live, as “not an easy place to live.” With many children living on the street, he notes that his family “is not the most miserable in this society,” and concludes his discussion of abject inequality with apposite forthrightness: “We have to change it one day.” At this moment, the travelling shot finally concludes after six minutes on a downward-tilted image showing the point where a wider passageway gives way to a much smaller alley, with a large bucket and drain-cover prominently placed on the ground—a symbolically charged, tantalizing but foreboding sight in light of the old man’s narration and the story we are about to see played out. Following the film’s very first cut since its introductory text, we see a small family—the viewer may assume it is the same one just described, with the old male narrator now perhaps appearing silent on screen with his family (although we only see three people here)—sitting directly facing the camera, dressed in period clothes. The image is held in silence for a few seconds before they eventually begin to speak. The film’s first seven minutes variously post-date both the Paris Commune and also, we are lead to believe, La Commune’s primary shoot. Upon this first moving-image cut, the film’s mammoth but unstable central flashback now begins at a point just before the Commune’s advent. Any lingering notions the viewer may have of the “past” in regard to both history and filmmaking are thereby from the start undermined.
When it comes to important formal patterns across the film, while some scenes do feature straight cuts between discernable shots, Watkins’ more typical approach is for edits to be replaced by a few seconds of black screen sometimes followed by white-on-black text. Alternatively, what would be longer shots are fragmented by such “interruptions.” From the film’s very first moments, following its credits, on-screen text informs the viewer of crucial historical events leading up to the Commune and occurring during its brief life. Increasingly these text interludes throughout the film are just as likely to provide commentary on events, often including retrospective remarks from the present day that offer multiple comparisons with 1871, crucial intervening events, and those of the late 1990s. A handful of these text screens also concern details of the film’s own production techniques, drawing our attention to how it was made and Watkins’ preferred style. Black screens can lead to the arrival of text, a new shot or scene, or a continuation of the previous one. Irrespective of what follows, such visual “gaps” serve as giant reflexive markers—that there has been a “cut” within a shot, between two, or that on-screen text will further draw us out of the immediate drama. Even where two shots are edited together, what would normally be experienced as a simple enough cut is effectively highlighted to indicate the presence and active decision-making of the filmmakers, who constantly threaten to intervene via the constant threat of black and text screen interruption.
The regular blank few seconds, in particular, also have the effect of giving viewers a little time to reflect on the implications of such usually “hidden” editing and other filmmaking procedures. In addition, we are given time to think about the on-screen discussions about the Commune’s purpose, character, and fate that we have been watching. Meanwhile, the very fact of the white-on-black text screens themselves regularly reminds us of the heavily narrated nature of this film and its highly constructed method of historical telling. The overt reflexivity of such text draws attention to the act of filming per se. Sometimes the text contains “flash forwards,” telling the viewer what will become of a character or group on screen. Other occasional stylistic flourishes include the gradually increasing but still fairly spare use of freeze-frames at the end of scenes before another cut to black. There is also some limited use of sound-image juxtaposition. One notable example occurs when Versailles TV interviews with government troops at Satory continue in audio form over images of Communards dancing in Paris. We continue to hear government army officers dismiss the people on screen as a criminal rabble before the image track eventually returns to Satory.
For the above and other reasons, the film’s overall stylistic character remains extremely presentational—in sharp distinction to a more “transparent” representational form. Initially foregrounded by its single, hermetic, “theatrical” space, this reflexive presentational style extends further in the filmmaking strategies Watkins and his team employ. Such spatial emphasis and allied filmic approaches are most obviously seen in concert through what is for La Commune’s first few minutes (following its introductory text) a consistently straight-to-camera delivery by the Commune TV journalists, then the small families who also look exclusively front-on at the viewer for some time, before slowly speaking about their everyday lives before and during the Commune all the while continuing to look right at the camera, with the highly artificial-looking sets given striking prominence. Then, after setting up a formal pattern comprising on-screen text, voice-over narration, and quiet direct address, 16 minutes into the film we get its first more “conventionally” staged action scene, in which the on-screen figures no longer primarily look right at the viewer. But even in this scene, showing a National Guard drill (a rather farcical sight, with the captain trying to make new members observe military discipline and hierarchy), and in many others across La Commune where actors “perform” and interact with each other in more dramatic scenarios, people continue to intermittently look into the camera before returning their gaze to the loosely rendered “diegetic” reality in which they are taking part. For a film like this, “real” reality must encapsulate the increasingly central role of audiovisual media itself—La Commune’s own production, its participants’ experience thereof, and the resulting film’s subsequent reception by viewers. This necessitates a thorough reflexivity that, for Watkins, actually reduces distance rather than enforcing any kind of “alienation effect.”
In concert with the brief, peripheral and often tentative-looking glances to camera (different from the extended front-on gaze seen in the first quarter hour), adding another crucial reflexive aspect to the film’s otherwise comparatively conventional scenes, these more dramatic sequences also pay no heed to traditional feature-film grammar. The hand-held camera and Watkins’ editing regime consistently present the warehouse set as a 360-degree space. With the first shot of the National Guard scene described above showing the new recruits from their right as they look screen right in the presumptive direction of the captain as he speaks, when the film cuts to show the latter finally asserting his authority (by means of articulating the political situation and the national government’s military threats), the edit crosses what many formal analysts of commercial narrative cinema call the “180-degree line” by presenting him also looking right in the direction of his men, who are now off screen. Left-right directionality has been somewhat muddied by the previous moving shot, largely taken from the men’s right but sometimes getting close to front-on. Five minutes later, the film’s mixture of explicitly reflexive and comparably dramatic (if still decidedly non-representational) styles are properly fused—or one could say “calibrated,” preparing us for many similar scenes across the remaining over-five hours—when the audience first sees what we soon learn is a Versailles TV journalist walking up to national government soldiers and brandishing a circa-1999 microphone to ask questions (as described above).
In addition to the anachronistic portrayal of audiovisual media—television, not to mention the “film” itself—in rendering La Commune’s 1871 setting, with extensive use of direct address for both whole scenes and furtive looks-to-camera, the film’s fundamental presentational form is perhaps most strongly reinforced throughout by the prominent use of this single, highly theatrical space, variously subdivided to suggest different buildings, rooms, and exteriors without for a moment convincing the viewer we are anywhere other than in the interior of a large warehouse at the very end of the Twentieth Century. In La Commune’s first half hour, most of its reflexive spatial, filmmaking, and performative elements are set in motion, starting to combine. As this epic production unfolds, these elements will continue to develop and cross-pollinate with escalating complexity and significance, especially when it comes to the question so rigorously thereby explored and voiced by this film: how to re-imagine, render, essay, and “produce” revolutionary history on screen.
Critical images, performance, and narration
Far from limited to its director’s particular style or taste, La Commune’s troublesome but necessary combination of political investment and multi-tired reflexive form is directly responsive to modern history itself, recalling one of Lefebvre’s central points. Always a Marxist with a keen sense of the cultural avant garde (as with Adorno’s seeking to “update” Marx when it comes to both the ramifications of consumer culture and also radical innovations in the arts), Lefebvre had close, intense relations with both the Situationists and earlier the Surrealists, before falling out with and critiquing each. For art to retain historical responsibility, especially if seeking any kind of revolutionary participation, space itself can no longer be represented within artworks as “whole,” irrespective of how desperately we may wish it were so in the interests of efficaciously fostering political change.
In a key passage from The Production of Space, Lefebvre writes:
“[A]round 1910 a certain space was shattered. It was the space of common sense, of knowledge (savoir), of special practice, of political power, a space thitherto enshrined in everyday discourse… Euclidean and perspectivist space have disappeared as systems of reference, along with other former ‘commonplaces’ such as the town, history, paternity, the tonal system in music, traditional morality, and so forth.”
Made on the now-lengthy other side of such a divide nearly a century later, La Commune partakes of a cinematic tradition often loosely called “political modernism,” starting in earnest with 1920s Soviet cinema’s fusion of revolutionary materialism, formal-aesthetic innovation, and resulting demands on and for an active viewer. Such a breakdown of transparency and representational claims as checked off by Lefebvre, exploding across the arts in the 20th Century’s early decades is, for a figure like Watkins, essential to maintain for the simple reason of historical responsibility, resisting the ongoing pull—including by allegedly progressive political voices—of conservative formal dictates so prevalent in much cinema, fiction and documentary alike, caused or at least strongly amplified by the dictates of the market.
Speaking in The Universal Clock, Geoff Bowie’s 2001 documentary about La Commune and its director, actor-participant Sara Louis comments on the production and ultimate form of Watkins’ film:
“There's a lesson to be learned here too, which is that we must reconsider our relationship to images. As far as possible, we must carry on this resistance.”
Watkins has characterized and criticized many audiovisual works’ institutional-political as well as formal-artistic regressions and complicities as constituting what he calls the “Monoform.” The filmmaker uses this phrase to signify the homogenized approach to form and aesthetics of finished works enforced at all levels of production and exhibition, with—contradicting the usual industry-derived justifications, frequently repeated by compliant critics and commentators—scant regard for viewer involvement and agency. Speaking in Bowie’s film, Watkins contextualizes the “Monoform” as follows:
“The whole purpose of twentieth century mass audiovisual media is that it is not predicated on incorporating the ideas, feelings, experience, subjectivity, memory, knowledge, wisdom of the audience. ... It's designed to withhold those, to push those away, and to instead engulf people with this fabricated, fragmented, arbitrary process... And that's why everything is moving very fast, to hold back any opportunity for the person to have time to come in and enter the material, and challenge it or negotiate with it or anything.”
As in much of Watkins’ cinema, La Commune concurrently offers and strives to generate a sustained critique of mainstream audiovisual form—especially as seen in many documentaries through their streamlined, homogenized tendency, most connected to the powerful Discovery Channel (the operations of which are laid out and critiqued by Bowie and others in The Universal Clock)—while at the same time seeking out alternative methods of engaging with history.
La Commune consistently criticizes familiar documentary and television “Monoform” techniques as differently enacted by both Versailles and Commune TV; in this way, to use U.S. parlance, we can see them as “conservative” and “liberal” variants of media conventions. With the exception of Versailles TV’s studio-bound presentation, appropriately featuring a tripod-mounted camera, the rest of the “TV” and our own “film” sequences—where we may venture such distinctions—are shot with a very noticeable hand-held camera, often utilizing long takes of up to 10 minutes. The latter tendency is very much in keeping with Watkins’ oft-stated belief that audiences need more time to interact with what they see and hear, so that a film or TV program can begin to undermine the “Monoform” and its prescriptive viewer relations. But while La Commune clearly doesn’t conform to familiar mainstream formal conventions (surely explaining in large part its initial exhibition problems), neither does it ultimately fit within the also familiar, if less mainstream, category of a long take-dominant cinema that frequently seems to invest hopefully radical charge initiated by a temporally-enabled resistance to our now long-rampant capitalist modernity’s inherent speed. Despite the long take’s historical association with an often (although not always) politically engaged realist cinema, or a more ornamental and sometimes “mystical” kind of global art cinema, in this film what could be very lengthy shots are frequently interrupted by the cuts to black, as I have described. La Commune also features regular, often rather fragmentary brief shots—which, as with those on either side of the few seconds’ black or text screens, again may or may not be continuations of previous scenes or precursors of others.
The cross-pollination of La Commune’s multiple reflexive audiovisual elements frequently plays out on screen for the viewer as a series of slippages. As the hours roll by, the viewer senses an increasing confusion of roles and identities both in regards to characters or types and the actors playing them, and the different media texts involved. Despite the large numbers of on-screen speaking parts, some of these figures do actually “develop” throughout, often voicing different views and analyses of events as they unfold. The early scene showing soldiers being ordered to fire on the Montmartre crowd as the national forces try to seize the National Guard cannon, only to be dissuaded by the presence of unarmed female civilians, is both presented as a key moment in the early life of the Commune and strikingly staged. The military commander’s failure is filmed in a highly theatrical yet non-dramatic way. After giving the women and National Guardsmen who have rushed to the scene “two warnings,” he simply gives up. Realizing the Parisians seem to have the upper hand and perhaps also that the soldiers will refuse to fire (as guessed already by officers in the previous Versailles TV interviews), the commander quickly retreats by walking backwards as if off a stage “into the wings.” This highly functional gesture contrasts starkly with what follows. Less than a few seconds later, sensing their opportunity, the women rush the government troops to embrace them after one of the latter upends his rifle. Effectively heralding the mixed political experiment to come, if not its longevity, one of the women triumphantly shouts: “Long Live socialism! Long live the Republic!”
The euphoria resulting from the victorious Montmartre defense of the cannon, particularly among women on screen, is palpable. In the above highly theatricalized scene within an already very theatrical film, after running towards the soldiers and cheering, the women themselves—whether we see them as 1871 characters or 1999 actors—seem to “feel” the transformative power they have enacted, forging in the process a more developed comprehension, both properly emotional and rational, of the possibility and potential meaning of collective action as they have just experienced it. The Montmartre victory inspires in the women a strongly proclaimed investment in the Commune and its fate, and their demands for representation within—which will be seen across many subsequent scenes. A series of Commune TV interviews soon after the Commune’s proclamation feature groups of women ranging from two unemployed teachers who advocate for free state-run secular schools so that girls can at least be properly educated, to women emphasizing their distinct labor rights, while others emphasize the bigger picture by stressing the importance of being able to vote in elections and arguing that the Commune’s Central Committee should properly recognize women’s vital role in enabling its existence, thanks in part to the Montmartre victory. One woman exclaims:
“I have needs, but I want recognition for all the women in the area, because it’s thanks to us that the regular army didn’t shoot. So please, the Central Committee must acknowledge us, so we can become members of this new assembly.”
Staring down the camera, she concludes: “We’re the heart of this revolution!”
In addition to women’s prominence throughout the film, the story of their distinct claims and arguments when it comes to political representation is most clearly followed through with the development of the Women’s Union, a story presented as crucial to the democratic and moral worth of this revolutionary experiment—both that of the Commune and La Commune. The first announcement of the Paris Commune Women’s Union under the general leadership of Élisabeth Dmitrieff makes it clear that rather than recounting a heroic tale of Dmitrieff’s efforts, in keeping with the film’s focus on everyday citizens’ experience we will follow the development of the more modest on-the-ground activities of its 11th arrondissement division. After the triumphant initial announcement of the Union’s inauguration half way through the film, the next scene focuses on the rather more pragmatic problem of finding an appropriate meeting space in the local town hall, despite having prior authorization. The officers at the 11th arrondissement town hall either seem to know nothing of the Women’s Union or show little interest in facilitating its local activities. This search marks both the struggle of nascent organized feminism within the everyday life of this self-proclaimed progressive political environment and is symbolic of the Commune’s own travails in claiming, or perhaps “reappropriating,” the city itself for revolutionary purpose.
Finally provided with a cramped, dishevelled closet-like room nowhere near big enough to house what they say will be “hundreds of women,” the 11th arrondissement division of the Women’s Union commences its discussions. Despite the insufficient space, even now the women have not been successful in finding a space of their own. At their meeting local men line the walls, and seem unable to resist speaking. The men’s behavior hovers ambiguously between refusing to allow such an enterprise, solidarity with the cause, or wanting to fold it back into the Commune’s larger class-based agenda (thereby erasing “gender”). Once again, the ambiguous interest some men show in getting involved in what is ostensibly a feminist political initiative plays out a tension that will be very familiar to those with experience of subsequent left-wing activist and progressive party-political activities, which often feature arguments around the question of women-only internal groups. Notably, the viewer is given audiovisual access to these discussions seemingly without the presence of Commune TV journalists. Compared to the latter’s brief interview snippets, the Women’s Union scenes feature more sustained conversation and debate, occasionally broken up by black and text screens, starting with a relatively wide but still clearly cramped shot before moving in to focus on individual speakers and sub-groups.
By way of introduction to the first meeting, the local Women’s Union organizer begins by announcing its ambitions:
“I'd like to remind you of 2 tasks of the Women's Union. The first is the defence of Paris. ... But the second, equally important, is to contribute to the social revolution which is the Commune's ‘raison d'être.’ For this revolution to succeed, women workers must free themselves from their state of slavery. This can only happen through cooperatives. These cooperatives should enable us to re-organize working conditions and to master the means of our production. We should, for example, be able to diversify our tasks, to stop repeating the same gesture all day long.”
On the one hand, these ideas all chime perfectly with central Commune principles, yet the fact of the Union’s focus on women’s unique experience, and its spearheading of such crucial concepts as worker cooperatives, suggests the task will be even tougher in the context of what is still an almost totally male-dominated political climate. Temporarily interrupting the lengthy meeting scene, on-screen text suggests the work of the Women’s Union remains to be completed 128 years later. Later in the film, another lengthy sequence features many of the same women now sitting in a less cramped space, seemingly speaking more directly for the camera as if commenting on their experiences for it, in a relaxed fashion describing what it was like to make La Commune. Tellingly, one woman asks about the distribution of the film. Another, perhaps optimistically, says the idea of the film attaining commercial distribution is heartening, before finishing with an apposite stress on this experience as one that transcends the frame and notions of a finished product:
“We should distribute not only the film, but also the life that took place around it.”
The consistent slippage between actor and role remains from the very start of the film one of its central techniques driving this revolutionary film-history’s palimpsestic mode of representation. In using the very same gesture as seeking to foster local and broader communal action, as described above, this ambiguity stresses on both historical levels (1871 and 1999) the basic principle of the human subject’s reclaiming her own body, mind, and emotional life, as well as her immediate environment for the purposes of work, rest, and pleasure, away from the contemporary “owners”: men, capital, and the state. As Lefebvre argues in The Production of Space,
“Any revolutionary ‘project’ today, whether utopian or realistic, must, if it is to avoid hopeless banality, make the reappropriation of the body, in association with the reappropriation of space, into a non-negotiable part of its agenda.”
Much of La Commune can be seen as playing out such fundamental, incredibly challenging gestures of reappropriation within different social contexts.
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2. Watkins, 2014: online.
3. Taken from one of the copious text screens seen throughout the collaborative 2000 film directed by Watkins, La Commune (Paris, 1871).
4. Readers primarily interested in discussion of the film may wish to proceed straight to Part II, which gains far greater theoretical-historical contextualization in light of Part I but nonetheless remains sufficiently coherent read on its own.
5. Lefebvre, 1991, p. 22.
6. As a result of this long relationship, roughly half of Lefebvre’s written output was for Communist publishers. Upon eviction by the PCF in 1958—following many years’ internal criticism for his comparatively unorthodox Marxism and insufficiently pro-Moscow views—Lefebvre subsequently remained a committed non-institutionally aligned communist to the end.
7. “Enamoured with Louis Althusser and his school,” writes Stanley Aronowitz, “the academic left largely ignored these [early translated] works because Lefebvre was a representative of the Hegelian-Marxist tradition that they were labouring to discredit.” (2007, p. 134) The title of Aronowitz’s article, “The Ignored Philosopher and Social Theorist: On the Work of Henri Lefebvre,” suggests itself that any influence Lefebvre may have had in the Anglophone world has been sketchy and highly selective at best—despite that in many ways both his concerns and conceptual attitude if anything chimes increasingly better with our own in recent years, such as incorporating an ecological dimension into the humanities and political science. Lefebvre, of course, has his committed advocates in the English-peaking world, and his work has probably not been quite as marginal or misunderstood as Aronowitz implies. But the still very partial and rather fragmentary nature of its reception and lack of wholehearted adoption (as was enjoyed by other post-war French intellectuals I mention here and in the following footnote) remains notable.
8. In Australia, where I received my academic training in the Humanities, Lefebvre was never mentioned in classes (even as the roughly contemporary German “New Marxists” of the Frankfurt School were comparatively prominent, if often as “elitist” targets for postmodern critique). This is in sharp distinction to the following generation of French thinkers we call poststructuralist, whose work dominated my university theory curriculum. Encountering Lefebvre much later provided an illuminating “corrective” to what even as a student I felt to be an excessive emphasis on—and, I later surmised, a rather depoliticized account of—Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and other French thinkers of the post-war generation initially drawn to Marxism but soon mounting a very successful Oedipal overthrow. Some of the footnotes in Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1991) feature interesting, if sometimes glib, critiques of such poststructuralist stars at the early peaks of their fame.
9. Aronowitz, 2007 p. 133.
10. Aronowitz, 2007, p. 150, before quoting Lefebvre (1991, p. 128).
11. Historical film studies scholarship over the last three decades or more has often devoted quite some attention to the close relationship between cinema and “the modern city,” both of which enjoyed twin peaks of cultural, economic and political importance during the same historical period. Until the 1950s, cinema’s production and consumption bases were thoroughly urban in concentration, which for key Hollywood styles and genres—such as the gangster film, the thriller, and above all film noir—became crucially reflected onscreen. (It can be argued that Hollywood’s primary “rural” genre, the Western, was also largely urban in regards to both its target audience and escapist appeal as an often-reactionary critique of the modern capitalist United States and wage-labor from the perspective of a constructed pre-modern past.) Yet the odd reference aside, Lefebvre’s work has generally received little sustained attention within even this scholarship on cinema and the city.
12. Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 22–3. In addition to Marx, Lefebvre had a long interest in Nietzsche’s work, devoting an early book solely to the philosopher (1939) and another to Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx (1975).
13. This crucial notion of Adorno’s is most strenuously worked through as a philosophical concept in the magisterial Negative Dialectics (1991), originally published in 1966. For a brief, hopefully clear explication of Adorno’s understanding of and stress on negation and its ongoing usefulness, including in the perhaps surprising context of film studies, see Ford (2012, pp. 54-61).
14. Lefebvre, 1991, p. 23.
15. Lefebvre, 1991, p. 23.
16. Each strongly influenced by Hegel, both Marxist philosophers engaged extensively with Nietzsche for his substantive troubling of the idealist Hegelian tradition of synthesis. The connection is made even clearer in Lefebvre’s invocation of negativity. Adorno partially exempted Nietzsche from what the former argued was Western philosophy’s obsession with synthesis, the lingering spectres of Platonic and later German idealism forever resulting in ethico-political regression and justification of suffering. Such majority philosophers, Adorno writes, “all have a parti pris for unity. It is in that fact that we discover philosophy’s uncritical complicity with civilization.” (2008, p.159)
17. Efficacious revolutionary change in the 20th Century usually started or was often primarily fought across rural environments in countries such as China, Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam.
18. Lefebvre, 1996, p. 158.
19. Harvey, 2013, p. xvii.
20. Far from a selfless gesture, such temporary allowance of would-be revolutionary activity works to prove the political establishment’s liberal values, a useful propaganda exercise helping “justify” the endless invasions and occupations by the United States and other Western armies of, we are told, “pre-modern” countries in selective need of “liberation”.
21. This holds equally true today for radical forces of the far right in both Western and non-Western contexts—if, in fact, such distinctions can still be made—when it comes to the recent wave of so-called Islamic-based terrorism carried out by often Western-born citizens. “Islamic State” or “IS” (sometimes also called “ISIL” or “ISIS’) is usually associated with non-urban and symbolically pre-modern space, matching what we are told is its “Middle Ages” ideology, by our dominant media and political discourses. Yet even from the latter’s Western-centric perspective, the real “revolutionary” potential of this reactionary movement—which has previously enjoyed (and still indirectly does so via Turkey) substantial Western-aligned financial and military support, as well as being largely enabled as a result of the US-led invasion of Iraq—was most significantly demonstrated in the streets of Paris on 13 November 2015, no matter whether the terrorists acted on “orders” from IS or were simply inspired by it. That most were born and raised in Western European cities highlights the trans-ideological importance of urban space to diverse revolutionary purpose no matter its ideological color.
22. Syriza ultimately negotiated a series of deals with the Troika, more explicitly with Angela Merkel’s German government, actually harsher than previous Greek governments’ agreements, which Syriza’s leadership and activists had sharply criticized—flying in the face of the early July 2015 “No!” national referendum result that both roundly rejected further austerity measures and the notion of Greece leaving the Eurozone. Syriza then reached a gradual détente with Greece’s creditors, shedding more left-wing supporters inside and outside the party and country, and winning a second national election in September. In mid-November Syriza publically backed widespread strikes against ongoing austerity measures—the very same measures enforced by the Syriza-lead government itself, demonstrating a kind of bizarre-yet-logical cycle.
23. As of September 2016, once again no grouping appears capable of forming a stable governing coalition in Spain at the national level, so that a third election remains quite possible.
24. Mike Bird, 2015.
25. The English-speaking world, meanwhile, has also seen some notable developments, if thus far less radical and significant. In mid-2015 under new rules the membership of Britain’s Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn, by most accounts the most leftist leader in its history—much to the chagrin of the still majority right-wing “Blairite” parliamentary membership and the UK media, spanning conservative and left-liberal variants. Enormously popular within the party's membership, the numbers of which have skyrocketed in direct response to his leadership and policy transformations, as of September 2016 Corbyn manages to hold on despite another leadership challenge resulting from an 80% vote of no confidence by parliamentary colleagues. Even in the United States, self-proclaimed “socialist” Bernie Sanders—whose positions are seen as very centrist, even conservative, to outsiders—did unexpectedly well in state caucuses and primaries in the battle with Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Multiple polls in the first months of 2016 had Sanders ahead of Clinton as more likely to defeat Donald Trump or any of the other Republican candidates. The apparent resurgence (or in the case of the United States, rather unprecedented) and prominence in polls and thus-far partial political success of unusually left-wing political figures and parties—both old and young, radical and more moderate—across parts of the Western world has been, in each case, crucially helped or even partially enabled by sustained activist critiques noisily articulated across major city centers of an exponentially unequal socioeconomic reality, peaking with the often-vicious austerity measures enforced on populations since 2008.
26. Such activism is, of course, far from limited to cities. In November 2015, for example, events in France (as so often the case) showed that the agricultural sector remains more than capable of major disruption and protest, blocking tourist sites with farm machinery and dumping produce across highways. I thank Jump Cut editor Chuck Kleinhans for this observation.
27. Lefebvre, 1991, p. 109.
28. This should not be taken to mean Lefebvre was not also interested in addressing rural space. In much of his work, including Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre extensively analyses what he sees as the different “cyclical” temporality of rural life as compared to the violent, instrumental linear time (very much following Georg Simmel’s very early 20th-century observations) of urban living. This often informs his own distinct critique of urban modernity itself, but also the often city-centric nature of self-proclaimed radical movements such as Surrealism and Situationism (both of which he was closely involved with for a time). “He was a prolific writer on rural social life,” notes Aronowitz, adding that this has largely been ignored in most of the U.S. response to his work—especially for sociology, due to being “predominantly a study of industrial society for which agriculture is simply taken for granted and the countryside understood as a vanished civilization.” (2007, p. 134). Nevertheless, following Lefebvre’s move to Paris, in publications such as La Proclamation de la Commune (1965), Le Droit à la Ville/Right to the City (1968), and Production of Space, special attention is clearly paid to the ramifications of urban space.
29. Harvey, 2013, p. xiii.
30. Harvey, 2013, p. xiii.
31. Brown, 2006: online.
32. Brown notes that Lefevre’s own explanation for the similarities of his and the Situationists’ work in this area was that they shared in extensive discussions on the topic prior to falling out. In this sense both analyses are collaborations of a sort. (Brown, 2006: online.)
33. Lefebvre, 1996, p. 130. Originally published in 1968, an English translation of Le Droit à la Ville finally emerged within a posthumous Lefebvre volume called Writings on Cities (1996), featuring many basic spelling errors. (The passage quoted above is from this original translation, forgoing Brown’s added italicization.)
34. Harvey, 2013, p. xiii. Presumably he is evoking here a relatively traditional brand of Marxism, rather than the various, and often fragmented, left-wing movements that have emerged since the late 1960s often centered around issues such as anti-colonialism, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity—movements that have often had their most visible bases in urban centers—not to mention the “anti-globalization” protests of the late 1990s-early 2000s, and again the “anti-austerity” and broader left-wing activism since 2010.
35. Harvey, 2013, p. xiv.
36. Galloway, 2015: online.
37. Gilles Deleuze, 1986 & 1989.
38. Galloway, 2015: online.
39. Jameson, 1981, p. 102.
40. Galloway, 2015: online.
41. Naturally, countless other historical events and traumas have resulted in far worse death tolls and total suffering. My point pertains, rather, to Galloway’s precise discussion of Jameson’s idea, something of a generative transition between the two parts of this article.
42. Ross, 2015. Her book, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, offers a fascinating account of the philosophical and political principles guiding the Commune and what became of key surviving figures and their ideas—those who spent the rest of their lives seeking at first to literally memoralize what happened (especially important during the period when there was a virtual ban on the Commune’s recognition in France), and then find ways to develop further its underlying principles, seeking out new contexts in which this might productively occur. McKenzie Wark (2015) offers a useful extension of and commentary upon Ross’ discussion. Another account of the Commune’s cultural significance and heritage, and the role of survivors and sympathizers in “commemorating trauma,” can be found in Starr (2006). These sources all differ starkly from the version of the Commune we get win La Commune, which features prominent leaders and strategists hardly at all, in favor of concentrating on everyday people.
43. Readers confident in their familiarity with the history of the Paris Commune may wish to skip the next eight paragraphs.
44. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from La Commune are from these text screens.
45. The decrees that were actually enacted by the Commune’s government in its brief life during official sittings were: separation of church and state; establishment of a secular, state-run education system; remission of rents owed during the siege; abolition of night work in bakeries; granting of pensions to unmarried companions and offspring of National Guardsmen killed in active service; free return of work tools and domestic appliances by pawnshops valued up to 20 francs pawned during the siege; deferral of commercial debts, and abolition of interest thereon; the right of employees to take over and run enterprises upon the owner’s desertion (the latter nonetheless maintaining a right to claimable compensation); and prohibition of fines by employers on workers.
46. Mulhern, 2015: Online. Ross (2015) provides the most extended recent overview of this expansive, integrationist cultural-educational-social-labor agenda of the Commune, by charting the philosophical and political visions of key figures.
47. Aronowitz, 2007, p. 136. Lefebvre, Aronowitz later writes, “declares the merging of art and everyday life as exemplary consequences for reversing the reversibility of time that routines and repetition have wrought.” (2007, p. 151.)
48. For both the Commune and the Church, Montmartre was clearly significant. The site where Government troops failed to take the National Guard cannons, the Archbishop of Paris—who became a martyr for the Church in its subsequent return to political and public influence—was also executed there by Communards.
49. During a televised speech to the National Assembly aired on “Versailles TV” in La Commune, following Thiers’ announcement that a final peace treaty with Prussia has been signed (receiving much applause), he then adds that the Commune has been “causing havoc with our foreign relations.” Specifically addressing Africa, Thiers continues: “I can say that the dangers threatening our colony have been partly averted,” quoting with great approval a letter by the son of “one of our most valued Generals: ‘I'm fine. Superb 8-hour battle. Al-Mokrani, head of the insurrection, killed stone dead.’ Thus, gentlemen, the danger which threatened our beautiful African possession has passed, and will hopefully, in a few days, have completely disappeared.” Much applause again ensues. The viewer then reads on a text screen: “When the Commune is crushed, 100,000 soldiers leave for Algeria to suppress the Muslim revolt. ... The resistance lasts until January 1872.”
50. Bullard, 2000, pp. 85 & 93.
51. The historical sketch of the Paris Commune I have provided is drawn from Ross (2015), Merriman (2014), Starr (2006), Shafer (2005), Horne (2004), Watkins (2014), the French documentary film, La Commune des Paris 1871 (Cécile Clairval-Milhaud and Olivier Ricard, 1971), the Canadian documentary about Watkins and La Commune’s production, The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (Geoff Bowie, 2001), and La Commune (Paris, 1871) itself. According to Clairval-Milhaud and Ricard’s film—largely made up of quotes from archival texts and historical scholarship, accompanied by extensive period sketches—following the final defeat, 26,000 Communards were taken prisoner, a thousand dying in detention. 36,309 sentences, 10,137 condemnations, 4,837 deportation orders and 267 death sentences were handed down by the national government in the weeks and months that followed. The film adds that Thiers’ forces, meanwhile, counted 877 fatalities throughout the period of the Commune. Readers seeking a relatively quick but more extensive and detailed online introduction to the Paris Commune than my own will find its Wikipedia page a useful entry point. Meanwhile, an online source offering original documents and contemporary writings by key Communards, as well as a timeline of events, can be found here: <https://www.marxists.org/history/france/paris-commune/index.htm>
52. Mehringl, cited by Benjamin, 2002, p. 788.
53. Marx, 2009: online.
54. “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes'.” (See The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, 1871, where this point is further developed.) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1872: online.
55. Marx, 2009: online.
56. Harvey, 2013, p. xvi.
57. For the fullest list I can find of these films, see here: <http://www.commune1871.org/?Filmographie-de-la-Commune-de>. Meanwhile, the Commune provides important historical context for other, usually better known films, without comprising the chief topic or setting.
58. Kracauer, 1947, p. 5.
59. Benjamin, 2002, p. 904.
60. Of course, nothing is impossible to appropriate for the tourist market, with guided tours of key Commune sites available.
61. The film’s immediate exhibition context is complicated. Watkins writes on his lengthy website page devoted to La Commune that La Sept ARTE, the large television network (well respected for supporting “serious” cinema and documentary work with limited commercial prospects) with the initial screening rights, finally premiered it “in the middle of the night” after initially refusing to screen the film at all, following which he claims it was effectively “banned.” Of course, with the exception of hit programs, it is quite normal for a television work to receive no distribution beyond initial screening context (and possible non-prime time repeats). Less common is for the exhibition rights holder to initially refuse to show the work at all, only to eventually—following much harassment by the director (and threat of legal action)—finally agree to a single screening very late at night. This situation meant, the director argues, that there was no prominent discussion of the film, or, more importantly, any rejuvenated mass-public discourse about the Paris Commune, its legacy, and ongoing relevance. Watkins appears to have been rather unrealistic in his hopes (especially in light of his previous experiences in other national filmmaking contexts as I have described), especially considering the film’s length, radical form and mode of political analysis. But as detailed on his website, the film did in fact receive some additional exposure in France upon completion. Outside the one-off small-hours TV broadcast, he notes the film was screened at some French film festivals, plus at the Musée d’Orsay—which was also one of the film’s credited production sources, hence qualifying La Commune as a partial “gallery work” —in Paris as part of an exhibition on the Paris Commune spanning March–June 2000. Based on these initial screenings, Watkins describes responses to La Commune as “very mixed. And since the film has not been shown to a wide audience, it is impossible to comment broadly on how the public has responded to this film. … The audiences have been either relatively small and generally very positive to the film, with most people staying to the end, or they have been much larger and with more mixed reactions, in which case usually about one third of the viewers leave part way through the screening.” Despite this exposure, its director laments, the film’s potential moment of national relevance was seemingly missed—though surely its tie-in with the Musée d’Orsay exhibition was a fortuitous and significant financial and public exposure advantage otherwise unavailable. What Watkins really seems to lament is a familiar cry by radical artists: the desire for a large audience—the rather mythic “public” he speaks of—for work that will rarely if ever be sufficiently supported by the requisite commercial or state-funded institutions. Three years later the film was made available to see outside France for French and English speakers—where viewers knew about La Commune’s existence so as to seek it out—when a small New York-based company specialising in the distribution of radical documentaries released the film in its full cut on DVD with English subtitles. More recently it has appeared on YouTube, again in the complete version. Watkins’ discussion of the film’s full production and exhibition history, from which I draw the above material, and what he argues can be learned from this story, can be found here: <http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/commune.htm>
62. He writes on his website, with typical bluntness: “We are now moving through a very bleak period in human history—where the conjunction of Post Modernist cynicism (eliminating humanistic and critical thinking in the education system), sheer greed engendered by the consumer society sweeping many people under its wing, human, economic and environmental catastrophe in the form of globalization, massively increased suffering and exploitation of the people of the so-called Third World, as well as the mind-numbing conformity and standardization caused by the systematic audiovisualization of the planet have synergistically created a world where ethics, morality, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered ‘old fashioned.’ Where excess and economic exploitation have become the norm—to be taught even to children. In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social Utopia—which WE now need as desperately as dying people need plasma. The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born.”
63. A 220-minute cut was created by Watkins to better enable theatrical exhibition and increase the chances of a TV screening. A third, 300-minute version was screened on German television. Due to the 2003 DVD release of the full version, and its subsequent availability on YouTube, the long cut is happily most likely to have been seen.
64. Louis Auguste Blanqui was the most famous of the Commune’s radicals, something of a full-time revolutionary who despite living much of his life in jail commanded a large cell-structure organization of followers. Eugene Varlin was another radical socialist, and member of the First International. Louis Charles Delescluze was a radical journalist, revolutionary leader, and key military commander of the Commune. Élisabeth Dmitrieff was a young Russian émigré, feminist, and member of the First International, who spearheaded the Commune’s Woman’s Union. Louise Michel was a central Commune agitator, anarchist and schoolteacher.
65. While this is often implied, the Thiers footage is presented in 1.66:1, not “pillow-boxed” at the old television aspect ratio of 1.33:1 or 4/3, as the Versailles TV studio broadcasts are. It could also be “raw” TV footage, like the on-the-spot interviews by the Versailles TV reporter—also in 1.66:1.
66. Early in The Universal Clock, a Canadian documentary about Watkins and La Commune’s production, we see the latter telling some of his actors: “Don't be afraid to look at the camera. Not looking into it creates a distance, and it's not natural either.” (Bowie, 2001.)
67. There is a long tradition in France (and elsewhere) of using warehouse spaces and other unusual or disused locales for staging theatrical pieces, often with political themes. For example, Ariane Mnouchkine has been influential in staging such productions in these kinds of settings in France since the 1960s. Thanks to Chuck Kleinhans for this detail. Jacques Rivette’s marvelous first film, Paris Paris nous appartient/Paris Belongs to Us (1961)dramatizes often doomed attempts to utilize such out-of-the-way spaces for rehearsal and potential theatrical performance.
68. Lefebvre, 1991, p. 25.
69. These and other aspects of the film’s multi-leveled reflexive aesthetic regime that I have been discussing suggest that while Watkins’ approach loosely operates within a cinematic tradition of “political modernism,” his cinema doesn’t quite fit the familiar variants thereof as suggested by András Bálint Kovács in his ambitious and magisterial 2007 book, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980. Kovács argues political modernism in the cinema effectively takes two general paths, each with important sub-divisions (which he also maps), giving equal weight to both: the alternatively realist or ornamental long-take approach on the one hand, or a more consistently fragmentary and “Brechtian” style on the other (2007, p. 376). The most influential account of political modernism within film studies remains David Rodowick’s (1988), which stresses especially the more Brecht-influenced reflexive form with special emphasis on verbal and written language for its ability to critique and deconstruct the suspect (because too emotionally and ideologically seductive) image. This argument has been effectively updated and extended by Angelo Restivo (2010).
70. For viewers with experience of activist history, such moments in the film may well be highly resonant for suggesting what Kleinhans called, in first responding to this article, “a kind of transformation of political consciousness through the vehicle of action.” I thank him also for prompting the above comment about collective action.
71. “Today in France, 60 percent of women work in 6 professions which represent only 30 percent of the labour market,” the viewer is informed via text. Following a cut back to the same meeting scene, another screen reads: “In France, 80 percent of all domestic work is done by women. This represents 3hr30 of work each day for a woman with children and a full-time job."
72. Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 166-7.
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