Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Dictatorship of the Lens: Notes on Gillo Pontecorvo's Queimada

The fight of oppressed people against colonialism, in any case, interests me because it’s one of the most difficult moments of the human condition. And because our entire civilization is constructed within this matrix. On the shoulders of colonial people, we draw all our strength. And our manner of thinking and our culture depend always to a greater or smaller degree on this fact.
Gillo Pontecorvo[1]

Queimada is a film of gazes: exchanged, elicited, refused, and denied. All this takes place under another gaze – the totalising gaze of the camera, which subordinates all other gazes, and which Pontecorvo identifies as the ‘dictatorship of the lens’ that we must fight against.[2] The camera, he argues, makes us ‘prisoners of reality’, or, we could say, prisoners of ‘reality’ qua the imaginary (in a Lacanian or Althusserian sense) – which is the visual ‘contamination’ of daily reality for the oppressed. To break this specular fascination, this miring into accepted reality, Pontecorvo stages this film as an iconography of gazes, a veritable dialectics of the gaze – at once Hegelian, Marxist, and Fanonian. This iconography traces a double movement: our exposure to a series of gazes between characters, looks of intensity, of literally life and death, and our exposure to gazes that direct themselves to us, the audience – in engagement, but also in hostility and indifference. This double movement is a double pedagogy, or a double subversion of pedagogy, which takes place within the film and which takes place between the film and the spectatorial gaze.
At the macroscopic level we can suggest that the entire film operates between two gazes. It begins with the downcast gazes of the chained slaves massed in the market place. A gaze either enforced or adopted for the necessity of survival, only the children retain something of the usual gaze of equality, eye to eye, although only, in this case, glancing out of frame.

It ends with another set of mass gazes – this time a direct look at the camera, at the audience by the slaves now become workers, and incipient revolutionaries, eteched by a final freeze frame. This is not the gaze of equality but of sullen hatred, of potential future revolution, which has developed through the revolutionary pedagogy of the rest of the film.
These are the gazes of the masses, as a ‘choral personage’, as a character or protagonist, which Pontecorvo had developed in The Battle of Algiers (1966). It is the epic of the masses, those masses ‘who make history’ (Mao), but enclosed within a different frame, within a different dialectic. We can imagine the whole film reduced to a dissolve between the first image and the second, a truncated Fanonian dialectic of reversal and truth achieved through the violence of refusal, a meeting of the gaze with the audience that exchanges nothing but the ‘blow for blow’, and the achievement of revolutionary consciousness.

But between these two moments we have another series of ‘gazes’, which will preoccupy my analysis, exchanged between the characters of Jose Delores (the non-professional Columbian peasant farmer Evaristo Marquez) and the British agent William Walker (Marlon Brando). It is the metonymic and microscopic ‘pedagogic’ relation of this gaze that condenses the whole dialectic traced macroscopically between the two images of the ‘masses’. The exchange between Jose and Walker is itself split and fragmented. It is not only the gaze between the professional agent provocateur and the emerging ‘professional’ revolutionary, the gaze between the one who acts as a revolutionary, but only in the service of the state, and the one who by acting becomes the true revolutionary, but also the gaze between the professional actor and the non-professional actor. To the pedagogy of revolution that takes place in the film, and the pedagogy of revolution between the film and the spectator, we can add the pedagogy of acting ‘outside’ of the film, all of which cross and become inextricable.
In his recounting of the filming Pontecorvo recalls the difficulty of working with Evaristo Marquez as a non-professional actor.[3] Chosen initially due to the fact Pontecorvo liked his face, it soon became apparent that he could not act, to the extent of not being able to move, turn around, or understand his cues. Coming close to abandoning the choice, although not able to as fifteen days of shooting had already been done, Pontecorvo, the Italian actor Salvatori, Pontecorvo’s wife and the script girl all intensively tutored Evaristo. They began to construct the performance mechanically, usually camera angles to convey moods or thoughts. To gain the effects of the direction of the gaze Evaristo was directed to look at particular points. It is also claimed that Brando too worked with Evaristo, although the working relationship between Brando and Pontecorvo was hardly harmonious.
This problematic pedagogic relation is repeated within the film in the relation of Walker to Delores – from the initial scene in which Delores carries Walker’s bags for him, placing himself in a subservient role, to Walker’s tutelage of Delores in the ways of revolution, through the gradual escalation of violent acts: from Jose Delores’s first ‘instinctive’ act of refusal and violence, to Walker’s probing of his capacities to resist, onto his training first as a bank robber, and then as a revolutionary. Alan A. Stone argues that the flaw in this relation is the assumption of the inability of Delores to assume his own capacity for revolt, his consciousness is ‘imputed’ from outside, from Walker. For Stone this ‘is a patronizing psychological assumption’ and the film argues that the slave revolt is the result of ‘the manipulation of the white man using violence for his own imperial ends.’[4] I want to suggest something more complicated is taking place in this relation, something more dialectical in fact. Derrida remarks, in Specters of Marx (1994), that the statement ‘I’m going to teach you how to live’ is ‘an irreversible and asymmetrical address, ... that goes most often from father to son, master to disciple, or master to slave’ and that ‘[s]uch an address hesitates, therefore: between address as experience ..., address as education, and address as taming or training [dressage].[5] It is this, necessary, hesitation that has to be attended to, and to Pontecorvo’s staging of an education that passes from training to experience, both for the character of Dolores and for the viewer, in terms of their own tutelage which must move from the dictatorship of the lens to the dictatorship of truth. It should be noted that this kind of uncomfortable and complex tutelary relationship is not as original as might be thought. The screenplay of the film was co-written by Franco Solinas, as Alex Cox notes:
Solinas, having written Salvatore Giuliano (1962) for Francesco Rosi, had a pedigree in political films. He wrote all or part of four different pictures, each with the theme of an uneasy alliance between a cynical gringo and a revolutionary peasant (¿Quien sabe? [1966], Tepepa [1968], A Professional Gun [1968], and Burn! [1969])[.][6]
Queimada belongs, as might already have been suggested by the Ennio Morricone soundtrack, to this ‘cycle’ of politicised films, which all concern the allegorical dimension of US intervention in Latin America and Vietnam. Of course this proximity might not be recognised because of the usual condescension to the ‘Spaghetti Western’. The singularity of Queimada is, however, that this relation is placed within the context of slavery, and within Fanon’s return of the master-slave dialectic to the dialectics of racial identity.

Contrary to Stone’s point, we should first note that Fanon’s dialectic does not assume an intrinsic or ‘instinctive’ radical refusal by the colonised as the condition for ‘purified’ revolutionary violence. In fact, the precise point of his dialectic is that the rupture of conflict and division must be produced relationally. Fanon is concerned with a pacified dialectic that results, he contends, from the fact that: ‘One day the White Master, without conflict, recognised the Negro Slave.’[7] In Fanon’s remarkable contention this lack of conflict means that there has been no dialectic of recognition, no struggle that risks death, but rather merely a passive shift from slavery to freedom (he has in mind the French situation, although seemingly ignoring the Haitian revolution, from which Queimada borrows, and of which Fanon is well aware). The result is that conflict is required to begin a real dialectic of recognition: ‘Alterity of rupture, of conflict, of battle.’[8] The dialectic of Queimada is a complication of Fanon’s dialectic of radicalised conflict, and his insistence on the necessity of forgetting the past to create the ‘new man’; what we could call, after Badiou, Fanon’s passion for the real.[9] In Fanon’s declaration: ‘I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.’[10]

In contrast, for all its allegorical dimension, Queimada re-stages that dialectic of conflict historically, in the context of slavery that Fanon denies in the name of the future.[11] It also problematises the issue of the donation or giving of freedom, precisely through the bifurcated staging of freedom: the first freedom that is manipulated by Walker and ‘granted’ by the new politically independent but economically dependent bourgeoisie, and the second freedom which does not (fully) arrive, but is signalled by that immediacy of hatred that emerges from the ‘pedagogic’ relation of the first moment.

Again, contrary to Stone, there is immediacy on the conflict between slave and master, in Dolores’s reaction to being struck down while trying to help one of the chained slaves. He does not obey the usual attitude of the slave, as described by Simone Weil: ‘Pushed, they fall. Fallen, they lie where they are, unless chance gives somebody the idea of raising them up again.’[12] Instead, Dolores picks up a rock and is ready to strike back in an act of ‘instinctive’ rebellion. It is this which draws Walker to him as a prospective revolutionary, because, as Walker states, ‘Someone at least once in his life has thought of killing his Portuguese master’.

There is no doubt that this dialectical relation initially unfolds in the form of training and tutelage, precisely tutelage into the kind of mortal conflict that Fanon, in true Hegelian fashion, sees as essential to the dialectic of recognition. It is only after the bank robbery (of the brilliantly named ‘Bank of the Holy Spirit’) and the necessity to defend their own gains that Dolores’s group can recognise that: ‘Portuguese die to’.

And yet Dolores is not merely the pliant and manipulable ‘material’, nor Walker merely the arch-master and manipulator that we might suppose. The dialectic between them, not least the dialectic of the gaze, is a pedagogic relation for both. After the successful revolution of the colonies bourgeoisie it is Jose who remarks, ironically, that ‘it’s all the same as before, eh?’ Even the scene of departure, when Dolores carries Walker’s bags for him again, perhaps doesn’t have the same sense of subservience as before. This is reinforced by Walker’s fate after leaving – to be re-encountered years later after the film’s hiatus as ‘drop out’ from his allotted role, which suggests the necessity of this dialectic of ‘recognition’ to his self-image, or his self (as do the concluding scenes of the film). When Walker returns it is because Dolores is leading his own revolution. This revolution is not against slavery, but against neo-colonialism: ‘If a man works for another, even if he’s called a worker, he remains a slave’. In this case, although Walker successfully captures Delores, we have the final moment of achieved refusal, a true dialectical moment of ‘abstract negativity’, in which Delores refuses to be saved by Walker. This moment, utterly inexplicable to Walker, indicates true reversal of the pedagogic dialectic:

His defeat is a comparison between himself and Dolores, who grows up. His development symbolizes the maturing of the third world, a moral growth which continues to the moment when Jose Delores refuses to speak any longer to Walker. Walker is defeated because he can no longer manipulate. His consciousness is that of the European who can be very friendly, but who must always be the one who decides. Walker encounters, in contrast to his emptiness, someone who is full of purpose. And this is his great defeat.[13]

Although focused on the refusal of verbal communication Pontecorvo notes that ‘He [Walker] sees his own emptiness before his eyes.’[14] In fact, in shooting the scene Pontecorvo decided to remove the dialogue and replace it with Cantata 156 of Bach. The scene becomes visual, and the visual representation of the refusal of words and the gaze.

Of course, this might seem the usual final fate of abstract negativity, in this case hanging, rather than the guillotine, but still ‘the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off the head of a cabbage’.[15] What is striking, however, is the symmetry of the acceleration of revolutionary consciousness that has taken place in the ‘time’ of the film. Rather than the process of pedagogy requiring repetition, now, when Walker leaves the island, his bag is taken not as the act of a prospective servant or slave, but as the prelude to an act of mortal violence against him.

‘Civilisation belongs to the whites, but what civilisation and until when?’

[1] Joan Mellen, ‘An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo’, Film Quarterly 26.1 (Autumn 1972): 2-10, p 2.
[2] Joan Mellen, ‘An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo’, Film Quarterly 26.1 (Autumn 1972): 2-10, p 8.
[3] Joan Mellen, ‘An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo’, Film Quarterly 26.1 (Autumn 1972): 2-10, p .10.
[4] Alan A. Stone, ‘Last Battle’, Boston Review (April / May 2004), [consulted 12 August 2009]
[5] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp.xvii-xviii.
[6] Alex Cox, 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western (Harpenden, Herts: Kamera Books, 2009), p.116.
[7] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1986), p.217.
[8] Fanon, Black Skin, p.222.
[9] Alain Badiou, The Century, trans., with commentary and notes, Alberto Toscano. Cambridge, UK, and Malden, Polity, 2005; ‘The Algerian nation is no longer in a future heaven, it is no longer the product of hazy and fantasy-ridden imaginations. It is at the very centre of the new Algerian man. There is a new kind of Algerian man, a new dimension to his existence.’ (p.18) Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, trans. Haakon Chevalier (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).
[10] Fanon, Black Skin, p.230.
[11] One might argue that the film therefore addresses the point made by Françoise Vergès, that Fanon’s dialectic of violence involves the fantasy of a self-engendering ‘brotherhood’ (in the Algerian revolution), that denies the historical experience of defeat within slavery, see Monsters and Revolutionaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), pp.14-15.
[12] Simone Weil, ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’ (1940), trans. Mary McCarthy, in Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad, intro. Christopher Benfey (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), pp.3-37, p.8.
[13] Joan Mellen, ‘An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo’, Film Quarterly 26.1 (Autumn 1972): 2-10, p 9.
[14] Ibid. p.9.
[15] Hegel, G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit [1818], trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p.330.

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