Saturday, March 10, 2001
"What are you rebelling against?"
"What have you got?"
— Marlon Brando, The Wild One
Here are a few films that don't fit the category of "good, bad, existential." Films about periods in history when social breakdown was more than a concept....
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) Directed by Sam Peckinpah. If an anarchist utopia ever existed, it probably existed in the American West. (If it didn't, that's where most of us would like to think it did.) This film is one of many mourning the passing of that no-rules utopia. (See also Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller.) Peckinpah's film is an elegiac spatter-poem about the death of that utopia as Pat Garrett (representing the long arm of the bought-off law) is paid to slaughter his former outlaw friends (including Billy the Kid) and is eventually slaughtered himself by the same robber barons who paid him. Conventional material, maybe, but unconventionally filmed, this movie is stuffed with haunting characters and haunting death scenes — like Slim Pickens shot full of holes, bleeding his life out in a river to the tune of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." In a way the film is one long death scene: the death of freedom, the death of friendship, the death of the West.
Ragtime (1981) Directed by Milos Forman. What's a movie about the turn of the century doing in a list of films about anarchism? Forget the nostalgic images; in many ways, the time was similar to the 1960s. There was a subversive, new music moving up from the black ghetto into mainstream white society, a class struggle, a struggle for black civil rights, along with dedicated revolutionaries willing to blow things up. This movie is about what drove certain people into radical action against the power structure — and the cost of that action. Based on E.L. Doctorow's left-wing novel and directed by Forman, a Czech refugee from Communist oppression, the resulting movie isn't so much anti-Capitalist but anti-power. If you want to understand anarchists, see this movie. (See Forman's 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as well.)
Rude Boy (1980) Directed by Jack Hazan, David Mingay. Flash forward to London in 1978. With the Clash on the soundtrack, a kid in punk gear wanders through a rotting, modernist housing project where racists and leftists square off against graffiti-scrawled walls. ("SWP stands for shitty white people!") Like the walls, the movie is scrawled with politics that the kid passes by without really noticing -- skinhead National Front types to the right of him, punks and hippies to the left. Despite his punk gear, the kid is apolitical. His background should make him sympathetic to leftist punks like the Clash (he's from the same city, the same class) but there's something about the socialists and anarchists parading in the street that pisses him off. "There's always going to be people driving big cars. I fink I wanna be one of those people, y'know?" The story takes place against a backdrop of political frame-ups, Clash concerts (see with your very eyes where Rage Against the Machine stole their act!) and Margaret Thatcher posters. The film's obvious message: Social disorder is the prelude to social control. Which is just another way of saying ... anarchy is the policeman's friend.