PRINT May 1992


The Way We Were

THE POLITICAL RALLIES, the International, the interminable debates, the collectives, the films of Bernardo Bertolucci, the strikes, the pickets outside the factories, the class struggle. And more: Mao, Che, Castro, Togliatti, Pasolini, Visconti, the Berlin Wall. I already miss communism. What will I do, what will we do, without it? What will we do now we can’t call ourselves Marxists (of the Groucho-ist tendency) any more? We have lost the brother behind the wall, the fear of an invasion that often seemed like the only possible solution to the political and existential torpor of our postwar Western world. And losing that brother, I lose myself, vanished on the other side of that wall—and on this side as well, relegated to the profession of intellectual without party, without flag, without ideology.

“The West please!” Eddie Constantine, alias agent Lemmy Caution, requests again and again in Allemagne neuf zero (Germany nine zero, 1991), Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film. The title, besides invoking Roberto Rossellini’s Germania Anno Zero (Germany year zero, 1947), plays on the word “neuf ” in French, which means both “nine” and “new.” But precious little is new in the West of Godard’s movie. That old spy Caution, familiar from Alphaville, has been charged with discovering where the West has gone now that Germany has no wall, and also no personality, no ideology, only the power of the banks. What he finds is just solitude. Which is what all those of us who have lost the Marxist dream are feeling.

I, we, needed communism, needed the idea of a revolution. I grew up in Western European communist culture, and in the cinema that molded its visual world. The Italian foundations of that ’60s communist-influenced cinema were Rossellini’s neorealism, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Catholic Marxism, Luchino Visconti’s science-lab-like vision, and Bertolucci’s dandyism. But all the engaged cinema of the period partook of the same spirit—from Godard, naturally, to Glauber Rocha, Andrei Tarkovsky, Nagisa Oshima, Tirwak Ghatak, and, later, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And American directors like John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and even Steven Spielberg would not “exist” without the European film culture that was inseparable from communism. Now that culture has “lost.” But what would American cinema have done without it, and, more important, what will it do now? How long can it continue producing gadget films of late-Spielberg derivation without the oxygen of a Western culture in which communism was a force? Scorsese, Michael Cimino, David Lynch, Woody Allen, and David Cronenberg demonstrate that influence clearly. Even John Ford and Nicholas Ray would be understood very differently without the left’s interpretations of their work.

Not even the spaghetti western was safe from the Marxist dream. On the contrary, this was precisely where the wildest debates on revolution and class struggle took place. Phrases from Mao and Bakunin are scattered through Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker, 1972. Pasolini quotes Marx and Gramsci in his script for Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescant, 1966. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “Danny the Red,” wrote a Maoist western, Le Vent d’est (The wind from the east, 1968), for Godard. And Franco Solinas, screenwriter of cult political movies like Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, 1966, and Quemada!, 1969, also wrote radical spaghetti westerns like Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa, 1968 (with Orson Welles!), Damiano Damiani’s Quien sabe? (A bullet for the general, 1967), and Sergio Sollima’s La resa dei conti (The big gundown, 1966). These films have been revered by an entire international generation of younger directors. Think of Brian De Palma’s quotations of Leone, and of Cimino’s.

Unfortunately an actor like Tomas Milian, who usually played the role of the “good” Mexican bandit, opposed to the deceits of Yankee culture, in the radical spaghetti western, will end up in Hollywood playing an anti-Castro villain, as he did in Havana and JFK. This after a glorious career as a member of the Actor’s Studio, and after leading roles in films by Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Bertolucci. Such results are harsh blows to our world of images, which is forced to withdraw from its essential principle, metaphor, and to face the brutality of history. Oliver Stone’s JFK and The Doors, for example, go absolutely without metaphor in reinterpreting events of the last thirty years. Yet all Western culture, and particularly European culture, has lived by building this wall of metaphors, a sort of white space on and through which one can freely express oneself. Without metaphor, our culture no longer has the weapons to confront reality. But perhaps it has never had them: “We live in a West where we have not succeeded in freeing ourselves, and we call this incapacity democracy,” said Godard, quoting Robert Musil, at the Venice Film Festival last year. At least in the East, our brothers in arms were capable of making a revolution, and of deposing their kings and their bosses. We, on the other hand, stood waiting for something that might dust off our consciences.

Yet we turned that expectation into a culture, an infinite discourse, much of it a discourse of images. This visual world was even capable of changing its own rules—John Milius’ Red Dawn, 1984, which imagined that a “red” invasion of America would reawaken the country’s “frontier spirit,” was interpreted in Europe not in terms of American anticommunism, its explicit message, but purely metaphorically: revolution as a dozing society’s last chance. Actually, though, the only “invaders” of the West we’ve seen lately have been the poor Albanians who landed by the thousands on the Italian coast, dreaming of the washing machines and refrigerators they had seen in our TV commercials, and singing the advertising jingle for Barilla pasta. Not only were these “spectators” of the Western image world sent back home (after they’d been exploited as clear demonstrations both of the “evils” of Communism and of its collapse), they also ended up in shocking ads for Benetton T-shirts, along with a man suffering from the final stages of AIDS. This doesn’t so much scandalize me as it depresses me, for it is only possible because the Western cultural unity born of ideology (in fact, of communist ideology) and its hidden shadow, metaphor, is gone. It was thanks to that constant ability to take refuge in a production of culture, a production not necessarily tied to reality, that images could take on a meaning, a direction. This they no longer do.

Except, of course, as advertising and marketing. All the horror of today’s world, from the dying PWA to the refugee, has already become an advertising image, or else a magazine cover. Either way it is stripped of political meaning. We can look forward to a world where we will no longer be, as Godard said, “sons of Marx and of Coca-Cola,” but sons only of Coca-Cola (or else of Pepsi, depending). The only amusement will be an adorable superficiality. We are already seeing a camp taste for rediscovering Stalinist trash-movies like Padenie Berlina (The fall of Berlin, 1949), by Michael Ciaureli, or for the mad choreography of Chinese films like Dongfang hong (The East is red, 1965), by Wang Ping. These now have a place in our memory alongside revered anticommunist muddles like Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets, 1951, or Pickup on South Street, 1953—movies finally free to be loved. The fact that we don’t have to justify these loves ideologically any more changes the movies’ meanings radically. There is no more need for love/hate pamphlets about John Wayne. We are free, alas, to love anything we want, on the right and on the left, whatever its political content.

This is a disaster, for it was ideological interpretation that brought those films alive. In endless discussions, insatiable cinephiles would have to justify every cinematic contradiction. That constant operation was our reality as European communists. Now it’s gone, and along with it the extremely pure love that we had for some films—for Pasolini’s Accattone, for Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (although I always felt this was overestimated), for Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution, for Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, for Godard’s La Chinoise and Weekend, for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, for the spaghetti western. All gone. There’s no production of political meaning any more, no analysis, no reflection on what it is to be communist. There is no longer any debate on ourselves, what we are, what we serve.

This vanished world is not only European: it is also your American world. Because without the East there is no West. Without our culture, yours cannot exist, not even as history, not even as science fiction. Even a blockbuster like James Cameron’s Terminator II is out-of-date, with its suggestion of international conflict leading to global war. No one believes in global war in the era of Yeltsin, the era of the triumph of fashion. (Local wars are another story.) Without a new informing myth, political science fiction will vanish before our eyes. No Invasion of the Body Snatchers, no Red Planet Mars, for those monsters from outer space were always metaphors for communist invasions. What we get instead is the true agony to the east of us—but played out in scenes as much tragicomic as tragic, scenes out of B-movies and C- and even Z-movies, scenes like the TV footage of the trial and execution of the Ceacescus, or of the aborted coup in Russia last August. This is communism itself staging its own end. All is shadow and ambiguity.

There is a void in the East, inhabited by postcommunists (what else can we call them?) who watch our television and dream about our clothes and our sodas. They frighten us more than ever, and are more present than ever: at the slightest whistle they may rush westward by the thousands, ready to dress up as Cicciolina (not accidentally a Hungarian refugee), ready to dress up as the Pope—but in any case always anticommunist. In the West, we are left with the surviving superpower. It doesn’t love us, doesn’t talk to us, and is no longer even capable of producing good anticommunism—let alone creating a new ethical and visual world.

Marco Giusti is a film writer who lives in Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.