Judge William Lee still thinks a polygon is a dead parrot.
"If the five sides of the pentagon appear impregnable, attack the sixth
French filmmaker Chris Marker has been making documentaries and experimental short films since the 1950s, but perhaps his best known work is the haunting La Jetée which was the inspiration for a Hollywood movie with which everyone is familiar. Much of Marker's catalogue of works is now appearing on DVD courtesy of Icarus Films. On this disc we have two politically charged short films—time capsules that offer a glimpse of the action as it happened and record the filmmaker's reaction to the days' events.
In the first film, The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, Marker and co-director François Reichenbach provide an engrossing eyewitness account of the Oct. 21, 1967, Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam demonstration. Three cameras film the gathering of 100,000 protestors—a cross-section of liberals, radicals, hippies, and Yippies—at the Lincoln Memorial and the subsequent march by 35,000 on the Pentagon. The cameramen are right in the thick of it, walking with the protestors, and the film's perspective is somewhere between journalistic and home movie. The view of the action is close enough that you can see the nervousness on the faces of the security forces and hear the sharp crack as batons contact with their targets. When the protestors reach the steps of the Pentagon and seemingly hundreds of soldiers stream out of its doors, there is real tension in the air as small but bloody moments of violence break out.
The cameras also catch odd moments that add color to the day's main event. There are the American Nazis ("those undeveloped morons") that try to interrupt the speeches; pantomime performances; and hippies chanting "Out, demons, out" as they focus their psychic power on the building. "They had asked permission from the authorities to have the Pentagon levitated up to 300 yards above the ground," Marker tells us in his dryly humorous voice-over, "They received permission for only 10 yards." Indeed, the most distinct element of this film is Marker's commentary that provides narration as the action unfolds but also reveals his own personal take on what he observes.
Though his camera's point-of-view is street-level, Marker's comments come a measured distance from the heat of the moment. The filmmaker was 46 years old at the time of the march and while it certainly seems like he sides with the protestors, he also sees this event as their struggle. The demonstration represents the next generation's students, activists and casual objectors coming into their own and finding the will to challenge the Establishment. "Side by side with imprisoned celebrities Norman Mailer and Shirley Clarke, kids have tasted insecurity, responsibility for the first time in their lives." The significance of the day, as Marker sees it, is the shift from protest to resistance.
The second film on this DVD, The Embassy is a fiction film shot on Super-8mm—supposedly a recovered film record of events at a foreign embassy after a military coup d'état in an unidentified country. As political dissidents arrive at the embassy seeking refuge, the ambassador and his wife do what they can to accommodate them. The camera observes the leftist activists, intellectuals and artists as they anxiously wait out the ensuing days by playing cards and peering out the window at deserted streets.
The lone voice on the soundtrack is that of the film's cameraman who explains the developments each day and summarizes the various conversations he observes. A quiet sense of dread is created by the performances and the minimal audio track. Off-screen violence is conveyed through the emotionless narration: "This afternoon a phone call confirmed a rumor. Thousands of political prisoners have been locked in a stadium and every night there are executions."
This political allegory is a little harder to warm up to, owing to its presentation and also the 35 years since its bite was most potent. While it does effectively look like a recovered amateur movie, those very characteristics (barely adequate lighting, damaged picture elements, unpolished audio) make it slightly unpleasant on first viewing. At times, the film resembles a home movie of a (somewhat dreary) dinner party with a story thrust upon it through the narration. But I did enjoy it more on second viewing, and found the dramatic tension worked quite well once I knew what to expect. However, I am still unclear as to the connection between Pinochet's 1973 seizure of power in Chile (the same year when this film was made) and Marker's choice for the setting of this story (he does reveal the identity of the city at the end). Some contextual detail is missing and since there are no extras on this disc, Marker's intention is left to speculation.
The video presentation of both films leaves something to be desired. While The Sixth Side retains strong colors and reasonable detail, the image is often marred by scratches, dust, and other visible defects. It looks like an aged film that has been preserved but not restored. The Embassy looks like a lost film that has been found but I can't guess to what degree its deteriorated look is intentional. The Super-8mm picture is soft and grainy. Lots of scratches and dust appear over the washed-out colors of the image.
The Sixth Side has a fairly strong audio track that captures the energy of the crowd. You can clearly hear individual protestors in the foreground as well as the general din of the demonstration and that gives some dimension to what you are seeing. Marker's narration is mostly clear though his accent sometimes makes it harder to catch a word or two in his English script. The audio on The Embassy matches the rough nature of its video presentation. Underneath the narration are a constant, low hiss and a mechanical drone. There are a few moments when it interferes with the audibility of the voice-over, most annoyingly during the final line of the film.
Presentation defects aside, it is good to see these films available on DVD. The Sixth Side, especially, is an exciting document of history unfolding in front of the camera. It is a little disappointing that Icarus Films hasn't included any extras to these films. Even an introduction or footnote to accompany The Embassy would have been helpful. The films are free to go on account of time served.
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