“Be realistic, demand the impossible!”

Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat (1977)

“It is forbidden to forbid!” has a nice epigrammatic zing to it, but “Under the cobblestones, the beach!” offers more, not only as a call to action but also in its stirring imagery. But of all the slogans chanted in the streets, painted on posters, or scrawled on the walls of Paris during the uprising of May 1968, few weigh in with as much philosophical import as “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” Yasmina Price has taken this one to use as the title for the series she’s programmed for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which opens tomorrow and runs through next Thursday. And she’s added a sort of subtitle: Cinema, Surrealism, Marxism.

Jean-Luc Godard is here, of course, but his La chinoise (1967)—which J. Hoberman, writing in the Village Voice in 2007, called “an integral part of the ’68 juggernaut”—is paired with Communists Like Us, a work from the London-based Otolith Group that began as a performance in 2006 and became a twenty-three-minute film in 2010. The Group, a project launched in 2002 by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, combines elements from a scene in La chinoise, a conversation about revolutionary violence between real-life activist Francis Jeanson and a Maoist student played by Anne Wiazemsky, with archival images of encounters between Indian activists and their counterparts in Japan, China, and other Asian countries in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The scope of the program, then, is global, drawing, as Price points out, “from both the anti-colonial Third World and European left.” It opens with Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask, Isaac Julien’s 1997 exploration of the life and work of the theorist and activist. The short feature screens with the Otolith Group’s Nucleus of the Great Union (2018), a half-hour study of photographs novelist Richard Wright took during a 1953 trip to West Africa.

In 1977, Chris Marker toured the remnants of the New Left around the world in his three-hour essay film, A Grin Without a Cat. “The images of street fighting and striking workers may look grand and heroic,” wrote Dave Kehr in the New York Times in 2002, “but the narrators continually remind us of the failures of the New Left’s leaders, who are seen as ultimately too weak, too hypocritical, or too naïve (as in the French left’s blind embrace of Mao) to stand up to the combined forces of the American and Soviet empires. A Grin Without a Cat is a work of extraordinary journalism, but it is also a work of deft and subtle poetry, visual (in the rhyming of gestures and shapes across images and sequences) as much as verbal.”

As Omar Ahmed noted in 2014, Indian director Mrinal Sen was a far more politically radical filmmaker than either Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak, and his “response to the turmoil of contemporary Bengali politics in Calcutta during the 1970s was consolidated in the immediacy of revolutionary ideals and articulated through a distinctive ‘third cinema’ approach. Released in 1972, Calcutta 71 was the second film in Sen’s Calcutta trilogy and it is generally regarded by critics as one of the greatest achievements of the New Indian cinema movement.”

Having won international acclaim for his second feature, Black God, White Devil (1964), Glauber Rocha, a major figure in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, told an allegorical tale of a writer disillusioned by politics in Entranced Earth (1967). Brazilian authorities banned the film at first, but relented after protests from filmmakers both at home and abroad, allowing Entranced Earth to compete in Cannes, where it won a FIPRESCI Prize, and then in Locarno, where it won the Golden Leopard.

Among the films skewing a bit more surreal than Marxist are Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale (1982), in which linguists study a remote tribe whose language consists of a single word, and two films by Luis Buñuel. With The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Buñuel “was able to realize his flair for the paradoxical on-screen more fully, and with greater finesse, than he had before,” writes Adrian Martin, and in 2004, Gary Indiana observed that The Phantom of Liberty (1974) “retains its surprise quality even when experienced a second, third, and fourth time: you find yourself intensely wondering what happens next, when you know perfectly well what happens next.”

When the series begins to wind down next week, it comes full circle with The Society of the Spectacle (1974), a cinematic reiteration of the central arguments filmmaker and Situationist Guy Debord laid out in his 1967 book. At Hyperallergic, Michael Piantini describes the film as “a collage of advertisements, newsreels, and feature films set against himself reading quotes from his text and deliberate misquoting of seminal Marxist thinkers.”

Writing for the London Review of Books in 1993, Greil Marcus, who had traced the line from the Situationist International to punk in his 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, noted that Debord’s book was made up of “221 theses on social life as a show that rendered all men and women, even those who staged the play, passive spectators and consumers of their estrangement from their own words, gestures, acts, and desires. It was a severe, Hegelian treatise” that “was discovered, trumpeted, damned, and celebrated as the signal text of the student and workers' uprising in France in May 1968; discovered in the midst of that unshaped revolt, and especially after it, the book lasted.”

Don’t miss out on your Daily briefing! Subscribe to the RSS feed.

You have no items in your shopping cart