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by Ken Eisler

Review: Coup pour coup

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

Ken Eisler was a friend of MOVIETONE NEWS from the spring of 1973, when he dropped down from his Vancouver, B.C. home for a few days and happened on some back issues while browsing in a Capitol Hill bookstore. He wrote us a flattering note (MTN 24), and swiftly became both a regular Contributing Writer (his MTN 29 quickie of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, written after a Mexico City viewing, may well have been the first English-language notice of that masterpiece) and a personal friend. In 1976 Ken relocated in Seattle and began participating in Seattle Film Society activities; he was elected to the SFS Board of Directors in 1977. Then, changes in work and life schedules forced him to step down from the Board, and prevented him from maintaining the constancy of contact we—and his MTN readers—might have wished for. Ken died early in the morning of April 24, 1978. Only a few days before, he had sent us this, his first writing for MOVIETONE NEWS in nearly a year. [—RTJ]

“Shut it down!” the university students used to chant. The image of a factory being shut down is conveyed in Coup pour coupby a series of quick cuts breathtaking in their economy. What’s more extraordinary about this seven-year-old film, screened here recently on the UW campus as an International Women’s Day event, is its success in conveying the ebb and flow of life within the worker-occupied factory after the shutdown. The filmmakers haven’t confined themselves to any single technique or point of view in doing this. Sometimes we see things “objectively” from a narrative vantage: we watch the women, inside the factory, preparing to repel a police onslaught, or giving complicated baby-care instructions at the padlocked front gate to hapless husbands (“…and then you can have your morning coffee!”), or finally—in disgust at the husbands’ grumbling ineptitude—setting up their own daycare center in what may have been the boardroom. In a very affecting passage a young woman who was first seen arriving home after a long demeaning day’s work—trudging up the steps with her pesky kids, glumly settling herself and them into the routines of another solitary apartment-pent night—is now seen sitting relaxed and happy against a wall, her thoughts spoken on the soundtrack (“Before this, it was ‘hullo, g’bye’ … I was nothing…”). Once in a while a camera placement or movement makes a particularly privileged point, as when the deadly repressive routine of the factory assembly line is broken by a young woman’s desperate outburst (a “nervous fit,” the foreman calls it), and the supervisory people’s angry attempts at restraint only add fuel to her fire. Other women cease work and come away from their machines to gather around the young woman in distress, pushing the supervisors out of the way. When their sympathy and support have calmed her baffled rage, the group, with her in the center, moves off laterally across and out of the frame. The camera remains where it is, though, so we’re left looking at who was behind that warm, turbulent group: “Sourpuss,” the female foreman with the pinched, angry face and unyielding posture. The continuity of the narrative is broken by songs, too. In one sequence the factory women joyfully improvise a cabaret song about their working conditions, the struggle, the boss, their husbands—their lives. The impromptu rhymed words are funny and revealing; and the hesitant or bold, quick or slow style in which contributions are made sometimes reinforces, sometimes changes our notion (and their own) of their personalities. Élodie, the oldest worker, has already shown an unexpected glint of malicious mischief in dealing with the foreman “Sourpuss.” In an Agincourt-flavored night scene before the police attack, she flowers into a wonderful old song celebrating the joys of tobacco, delighting the other women and then following up with some historical perspective on the present action, at their request, via reminiscences of a legendary 1936 strike.

What we’re watching is a film about that potentially clichéd subject, the raising of consciousness. Factory boss Boursac does make a satisfyingly Eisensteinian target for a “militant” film, with his tinted glasses, his ramrod pride, his deviousness, his black suit and homburg; and it’s peculiarly gratifying to see him standing frozen-faced, surrounded by gleefully disrespectful women workers in the cage of an old-fashioned cable-drawn barred elevator or a glass enclosure where, a hungry hostage with a bursting bladder, he’s taunted by the very barbarians his supervisory minions customarily surveyed coldly (time-is-money) from their glass-enclosed eyries. But it’s the changes in the women’s sense of themselves that really count here: changes in perspective. And from this point of view the most mysteriously moving shots in the film are those recurrent high-angle, distant views of the factory itself, set against town and countryside: late-afternoon sun glinting off blank windows … a bird flying across the frame … smoke rising languorously from chimneys. These Ozu-like scenes are palpably held for a certain number of beats, in utter silence save for the subdued rhythmic, motivic clicking of the now-stilled machines and, sometimes, a quietly ongoing music as serenely detached yet curiously stirring as that of Herzog’s own beloved transcendental Popol Vuh.

© 1978 Ken Eisler

Direction: Marin Karmitz. Professional filmmakers, workers, students, and actors—almost 100 people in all—cooperated on the making of the film (all were paid the same salary).

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.

Aguirre, The Wrath Of God: Extraordinary Images, Extraordinary Resonance

By Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1971, reprinted in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

We were looking at a back number of the magazine for quite another reason and happened on this piece by the late Ken Eisler. It was written at a time when most of us had heard little of Werner Herzog and seen less. Ken had caught Aguirre, Zorn des Gottes in Mexico City—one of the few places the film played before Herzog became a cult item; he wrote this appreciation sometime later. There are some misremembered details here, and maybe just a little Kunstwerk of Ken’s own. These factors do not contradict our fondness for the piece, even underscore its value as a personal response, one artist to another. Aguirre is firmly established as a cult item now, and a lot of our present readers will not have access to MTN 29 of January-February 1971. So here.

A strange breed of Katze, this “autodidact” film director Herzog. Lacks decorum, y’ know: Dash of this, dash of that … and that … and that. Just splashes it all together up there, out front; damned if the thing don’t come out echt Kunstwerk.

Pedro de Ursua of Navarre leads the conquistadore party
Pedro de Ursua of Navarre leads the conquistadore party

To begin with, a good story. Quasi-historical. It’s 1560. A party of conquistadores toils exhausted through deepest Latin America, looking for EI Dorado. Then, in mid–Amazonian jungle, a putsch! Pedro de Ursua of Navarre, servant of king and country, is out. The new leader: ruthless, crazy Lope de Aguirre—and screw king and country. Sort of based on the annals, I gather; but such liberties, such liberties. Like, Aguirre, the Rebel Conquistador! See the Bad Seed, in Pursuit of the Sud’s Boodle, Go Coco-Loco! He Blitzkrieged the Impenetrable Jungle! It Laughed Last!…

Well, speaking of Murnau, he surely would have relished the supple camerawork of Aguirre, its saturated Andean colors; but its reckless admixture of elements—now that might have been something else again. The pop adventure yarn, maybe; but the pop parable? Colonialism? Fascism? Take your pick.

The distancing, maybe, the cool. Example: On a surging river, a big raft revolves helplessly, crowded with panicky soldiers in gleaming heavy armor, horses, Indians at each corner locked in treadmill struggle with a maelstrom that just won’t quit. Long motionless take, telephoto, from across the river. It looks curiously static, this life-and-death struggle, suspended calmly in time and space.

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Offing the Pig: Even Dwarfs Started Small

By Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Even Dwarfs
The revolutionary act of burning the potted plants

It’s easy to see how Werner Herzog’s third feature might have provoked cries of “Reaction!” from students and other militants. The film’s rebellion of dwarfs against a callous but mealy-mouthed reform school administration certainly “starts small”; it barely gets one cubit off the ground, in fact.

Instead of burning down the school, the rebels burn potted plants. Instead of escaping “nach Dolores Hidalgo,” they commandeer an old car, joyride up and down in it a while, and then abandon it with the motor running, to circle around and around the school courtyard. Instead of humbling the sanctimonious administrators, they torment animals, things, each other. A female dwarf sits at the curb, tirelessly smashing one white egg after another against the stony ground. Another “rebel” busies himself trashing an old typewriter and finally flings it at the circling auto.

As a revolution, this is one long “exercise in futility.” And Herzog’s habitual irony, at many points, does seem to be pointing up a politically wry view of the uprising. Why else draw attention, twice, to the proximity of a town called Dolores Hidalgo—site of the historic Grito (cry) that set in motion the Mexican struggle for independence?

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