Displeasure Principles

Amy Taubin on “Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election”

Peter Watkins, Punishment Park, 1970, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes.

A FACE IN THE CROWD, Elia Kazan’s caustic 1957 exposé of American greed and gullibility, has never seemed as horrifying as it does now that a fulminating, fascistic fuckup has become the leader of the unfree world, its future to be determined by Exxon. Under Kazan’s direction, Andy Griffith gives a larger-than-life performance as a country-western singer with a talent for demagoguery who rides local TV stardom into high political office.

Kazan’s takedown of American democracy opens Anthology Film Archives’s eclectic series “Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election,” which runs January 20 through 24. Face and the three other feature films were cautionary tales that might have seemed overly paranoid when they were first released but now speak to a rational collective fear.

Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s It Happened Here (1965) and Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park (1970) are dystopic fictions that border on faux documentaries. Brownlow, a renowned British filmmaker and historian, and Mollo, a British military historian, conceived and began shooting It Happened Here in the late 1950s when they were both in their teens. Set during World War II, it depicts an England where the Nazis have invaded and occupy the country with the help of all-too-willing citizens, just as in Vichy France. While there are pockets of resisters, the majority has adjusted to the occupation and administers the new regime when the Nazi army withdraws to boost its ranks on the eastern front, leaving a skeleton crew of SS behind. The ongoing bloody encounters between resisters and Nazis surrogates are akin to a Civil War. The narrative focuses on a nurse who wants to remain apolitical but is drawn into working for the occupation and falls in line with its program until she discovers that she is involved in genocide.

Brownlow and Mollo were in production on and off for eight years, during which their roughly $10,000 budget was somewhat enhanced by contributions from such prominent directors as Tony Richardson and Stanley Kubrick. (The latter supplied leftover black-and-white stock from, what else, Dr. Strangelove [1964].) Years ago, when I wandered into a screening of It Happened Here, I mistook it for a 1940s British studio-fiction film, thanks to the precision and luminosity of the 16-mm cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (later David Cronenberg’s DP) and Brownlow’s crisp documentary-style editing. Even when I learned something about the film, I wrongly believed that the firefights set in bombed-out rubble and the sequences of the occupying government goose-stepping through London streets were an ingenious combination of stock footage and live action. Not so. Entirely made up of original live action, It Happened Here is a visionary film about an imagined past that could easily become our future.

Robert Kramer, Ice, 1969, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

Banned by the BBC for twenty years and trashed by some otherwise astute American critics when it played at the New York Film Festival, Punishment Park may be Watkins’s least subtle film. But its premise—that as the war in Vietnam rages on during the Nixon years, people who are judged a threat to national security are rounded up and given a choice between life imprisonment in some Gitmo-like facility or playing a game of “Survivor” in a vast humans-hunting-humans desert preserve—struck a nerve in 1970 and again with its 2006 rerelease, during the second Iraq war. Now, with that-guy-whose-skin-looks-like-a-tangerine-just-a-day-away-from-rot claiming to be president and boasting that he’ll soon be filling Gitmo with “bad actors,” Watkins’s faux-reality show has never seemed so real.

A hybrid of a radical leftist (in)action thriller and a psychodrama that administers a nightmare dose of castration anxiety, Robert Kramer’s pioneering American-indie Ice (1969) is a prototypical male take on the feminist axiom about the personal being political. Flawed though it is, Ice bores into your consciousness and never lets go. For moving-image makers searching for models of activist art, the 1967 compilation For Life, Against the War is a treasure-trove of ideas, whether successful or failed. A loose-knit group of artists put out a call to filmmakers to produce shorts for “The Week of the Angry Arts.” Among those who responded with protest films were Larry Jordan, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow, Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, Ken Jacobs, Leo Hurwitz, and Lewis Jacobs. Someone should brave the copyright issues and bring For Life, Against the War to Blu-ray now that Anthology, with help from Sony Pictures, has restored the original 16 mm. Two films by Brakhage, The Governor (1977) and Song 23: 23rd Psalm Branch, Part 1 and Part 2 (1978) complete “Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome.” Brakhage stuck to his aesthetic guns while struggling with war anxiety and the spectacle of political power. The latter is one of his great films, the former no more than what meets the eye.

“Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election” runs Friday January 20 through Monday January 24 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. All box-office proceeds on January 20 (Day Without Art) will be divided equally among three nonprofits: The American Civil Liberties Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Planned Parenthood.