Tag Archives: pathology of authority

The City and The Dogs (1985)

The first thing you learn in the army is how to be a man, and men smoke and drink, and fuck … but the ones that don’t get caught are the smart ones.”

Based on the Mario Vargas Llosa novel,  Time of the Hero Francisco J. Lombardi’s film The City and the Dogs (La Ciudad y los Perros) is an ultimately disturbing film which examines how morality and individuality are subsumed within a militaristic institution. The institution under scrutiny in the film  is a military college in Lima, Peru, and the film begins with scenes depicting the savage “baptism” of cadets. In N. America, the term ‘hazing’ would be used to describe the degrading activities that take place in the dormitories and showers with new cadets humiliated and being treated like dogs by the older cadets. There’s almost too much to absorb in the mayhem of these hellish scenes–a fiery hoop, one cadet hanging upside down, cadets on all fours with leashes around their necks, and two cadets engaged in a ‘dog fight.’ It’s clear that one cadet, a strange figure known as The Jaguar (Juan Manuel Ochoa) refuses to submit to the humiliations heaped on the others. But even more than that, The Jaguar, who’s a former gang member, fights back and establishes his dominance.

All of the cadets are supposed to abide by the college’s strict rules which include no alcohol and no smoking. The Jaguar, however, along with three other cadets: Cava, Boa (Aristoteles Picho) and Rulos (Tono Vega) form “the Circle” a shady organisation responsible for providing the other cadets with contraband: pornography, alcohol, cigarettes, uniforms and even, more significantly stolen tests. It’s almost graduation time, and The Circle arranges for the theft of the chemistry test, but when the theft is discovered, all the cadets who were on duty that night are confined to barracks until the thief is uncovered.

Part of the film follows the relationship between two of the cadets outside the Circle–The Slave (Esclavo) played by Eduardo Adrianzén and the Poet (Pablo Serra), who writes letters and dirty stories for the other cadets in the dormitory. When Esclavo is confined to the barracks following the theft of the chemistry test, he asks the Poet to go and visit Teresa (Liliana Navarro) a girl he adores. When barracks confinement continues, Esclavo, a quiet, friendless cadet who bears the brunt of nonstop bullying, breaks under the pressure….

Although the film’s plot seems fairly simple, there’s a lot going on in this complex film. On one level, there’ s the group behaviour of the cadets–all of whom are afraid to cross The Jaguar. After all since The Jaguar provides the other cadets with cigarettes and booze, to some extent, he’s made their confinement at the college far more tolerable. None of the cadets dare cross The Jaguar–no matter how cruel he is, and this is due in part to fear but also to the material comforts he provides.

When a death occurs at the college, an investigation is conducted and a report generated.  Lt. Gamboa (Gustavo Bueno), a decent man who wants to do the right thing, questions its accuracy with catastrophic results. Through the actions of Gamboa and the Poet, we see just how individual morality is squashed or perverted by institutional & military dictates.  Truth is trumped by such nebulous concepts as ‘duty,’ ‘honour,’ and ‘tradition,’ so we see that those who thrive within a militaristic institution or society are those who are willing to allow their individual morality to be controlled or subsumed. Therefore someone like The Jaguar thrives and even uses institutional dictates to run amok while gentler cadets are crushed by the system. Of course, on another level, life within the college could be symbolic of life within a militaristic society with bullies, sadists and conformists rising to the top.

The film also examines how individual motivation is affected by the perceptions of  ‘the group’. What motivates the Poet, for example? Is he motivated by guilt or something finer? And then what of the Jaguar? Can we believe his final statement? Or is he simply trying to be a ‘hero’ or a tough guy to the last? The film doesn’t give any easy answers to these questions, but the message ultimately is that if the individual decides to stand up against the ruling system, then one should be prepared for the system to strike back against the individual. Just how far anyone is prepared to go to fight the system, depends on just how much one is willing to pay.  

For those wishing to dip into Peruvian film, Lombardi’s film, Mariposa Negra is superb, and Ojos Que No Ven should not be missed. There’s also Tinta Roja, Don’t Tell Anyone, and Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras

The City and the Dogs is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s Foreign film festival


Filed under militarism, Peruvian

Zero de Conduite (1933)

 “Do you want a zero in conduct?”

French director Jean Vigo made only two feature length films (and two short films) before dying at the age 29. L’Atalante is an much acclaimed film–but Zero de Conduite has fallen into obscurity. Upon its release, Zero de Conduite–a short tale of schoolboy rebellion–was banned in France. Perhaps it was judged too subversive–Vigo’s father Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (AKA Miguel Almareyda) was in his youth, a prominent anarchist. Vigo’s father later abandoned his anarchist beliefs, became mired in some shady political activities, and was murdered in jail.

zero-de-conduiteThe film begins with the return of various schoolboys to a strict boarding school. The school environment serves as a microcosm of French society–with those in charge, corrupt and dictatorial. The boys live on a diet on beans, and teachers search for sweets, which are then confiscated. The teachers threaten the boys with the dreaded “zero in conduct” if they misbehave, and of course, that principle only works if one cares about such things. It’s not long before three troublemakers–instigators Bruel, Caussat, and Colin–are identified. The film depicts a number of ridiculous rigid rules, and the boys’ reaction to them. While one teacher is tolerant–the Chaplinesque Huguet–other teachers are notoriously strict. One of the teachers even seems to have a questionable taste for one of the boys. After a particularly trivial infraction, the boys lead a revolt against authority on alumni day. In one unforgettable scene, a pillow fight rains feathers down on the rebellious boys as they somersault in a crowded dormitory.

Unfortunately, this is a terrible print. One scene takes place in a railway station at night, and it’s very difficult to make out some of the action. The sound is crackly, and white splotches appear on the print. In spite of all this, however, the film evokes the magical, irrepressible spirit of childhood, and it certainly revived the ecstasy of my rebellious schooldays. In French with English subtitles

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Filed under France, Jean Vigo, Political/social films, Silent

Strike (2006)

 “Should the union president report me to the authorities?”

Strike is a fictionalized account of the contribution of one woman to the Polish Solidarity movement. When the film begins, it’s the 60s, and Agnieszka (Katharina Thalbach) works nights at the local Lenin shipyard to support herself and her small son. They live in a tiny cramped apartment, and life is a struggle. Agnieszka is a “heroine of labour” well respected by her fellow workmates and the bosses alike. When the film begins, she receives an award for exceeding work goals. The reward is a small television set, which she lugs home and turns on to the delight of her son and her neighbours.

strikeWhile Agnieszka is obviously a hard worker, the first indication that she’s also a freethinker occurs early in the film when the workers ask for a longer lunch break. The 30 minutes they are given isn’t long enough to make it to the canteen and back, but the bosses egregiously refuse the request for a longer break. At this point, Agnieszka steps up and organizes lunch for her fellow workers at the site so that everyone can eat. Seems reasonable enough, but this action irks the bosses and the lunch period is reluctantly extended.

Agnieszka is illiterate when the film begins, but as the film progresses, she learns to read in order to become a crane operator. This new position will allow her to work days and help with the care of her son. As a crane operator, she must work all day long without coming down from her crane, and this means she will have to urinate in a bottle inside the crane. She accepts all of this very matter-of-factly and without complaint. Much of the film concentrates on the horrendous working conditions at the shipyard (“They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”). Sloppy conditions combined with killer days and unattainable work goals lead to a horrendous accident in which many workers are killed. When the company rules that the workers were at fault, and uses this as an excuse to refuse to pay pensions (an action approved by the “so-called union”), Agnieszka goes to war against the bosses.

Strike does a good job of showing that the union bosses are in bed with the communist party. Union officials are not there to improve working conditions. Instead they concentrate on feathering their own nests while ensuring the passive cooperation of the workers. Agnieszka is portrayed as a remarkable, tenacious woman who refuses to bow to any ‘authority’ no matter the cost. The character of Agnieszka is based on the real life Anna Walentynowicz. Lech Walesa (Andrzej Chyra) appears here, but he’s shown to play a fairly minor role compared to Agnieszka. A few years after the formation of Solidarity, Anna Walentynowicz, critical of Walesa’s policies, left the Solidarity movement. The film hints at this, but does not explore this issue. In Polish with subtitles, Strike is from German director Volker Schlondorff. I’ve categorised this as Polish and German for obvious reasons.

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Filed under German, Political/social films, Volker Schlondorff

Punishment Park (1971)

“Would you like me to define what a politician is?”

Made during the Vietnam War, Punishment Park from director Peter Watkins extends the social unrest of the times and presents a society in which dissidents are rounded up–mainly for their opinions, and then subjected to tribunals and punishment. Heavily influenced by the Kent State incident, the film is set in an America in which Nixon activates the 1950 McCarran Act, allowing federal authorities to detain people who are deemed to be risks to security and candidates for “future acts of sabotage.”

punishment parkThe film goes back and forth between scenes of the tribunals held in a tent for group 638 and scenes of group 637 in the desert. The dissidents include war protestors, anti-recruitment activists, draft dodgers, and university students. Opposed to the Vietnam War, they’ve been summarily rounded up, and now judged security risks, they are given the choice of hefty sentences in federal penitentiaries or the rigors of Punishment Park.

Facing a typical sentence of forty years in a federal penitentiary or four days in Punishment Park, naturally, the dissidents chose the latter. In Punishment Park, the dissidents–now prisoners–are set loose in the harsh Southern California desert with no water. Their goal is to reach the American flag hoisted some 53 miles away within 3 days and 2 nights. If they can reach the flag, in this exercise replete with both literal and symbolic overtones, they will be free to go. This is clearly a cruel ‘game’–sport (officially called a training exercise) for the police officers, army personnel, and SWAT teams who are assigned to monitor the prisoners. The participants on both sides of the Punishment Park fiasco are interviewed, and opposing opinions and attitudes are presented in this microcosm of the times.

Similar to Watkins’ film The Gladiators the backdrop of a competition is used to make statements about societal values. Punishment Park is not nearly as successful a film as The Gladiators. Some of the tribunal scenes border on the hysterical, and although they begin as ideological battlegrounds, they usually devolve into swearing sessions between the dissidents and their bourgeois judges. However, some of the moments in these ad hoc courtrooms are priceless. Various members of the establishment conduct the hearings and at one point, they question a black prisoner. Tribunal members argue that “black people in the U.S, have more cars and T.Vs” than the entire population of Russia. This, tribunal members believe, is a substantive argument for black compliance with the system.

Punishment Park like The Gladiators is another Peter Watkins cult hit still waiting to happen. Ostracized by the media, but also in self-imposed exile, his work remains outside of mainstream media channels. Although Punishment Park was made almost 40 years ago, it remains startlingly prescient, and it’s as though societal elements that Watkins saw in their fragmentary form have come to fruition in this new century. In Punishment Park Watkins portrays the pathology of authority, the erosion of the constitution, and the division of America by the politics of polarization.

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Filed under British, Peter Watkins, Political/social films

The Gladiators (1969)

“Basic humanity–that’s what’s wrong with that boy.”

Set in the future, the bleak satire The Gladiators from British director Peter Watkins is a docudrama that televises “the Game,” an international competition of military exercises conducted in the interests of “world peace.” These games were devised as a substitute for war, and are supposed to channel and control man’s natural predilection for violence, so instead of the entire planet being ruined, and millions killed, the violence is confined to a small space with a few dozen participants. Well that’s the theory, at least. The Game is held in Sweden, a neutral country, and the programme, sponsored by a pasta company and complete with advertisements, is broadcast worldwide as teams aim to achieve their goal of reaching the control room. Each team is comprised of a number of soldiers–male and female–who are given numbers only.

GladiatorsWhile The Gladiators is an anti-war film, it’s not an anti-war film in the traditional sense. The Game is, arguably, a viable alternative to war, an arena in which only a handful of people die rather than millions. But at the same time, this is warfare distilled down to its essential elements: a blind acceptance of established hierarchy, the depersonalization of combatants, a willingness to die for abstract ideals, and the attaining of meaningless strategic goals. The team members are representatives of their countries, and when members of the allied team are interviewed prior to the commencement of the Game, they are unable to answer questions about why they are fighting–except to spout platitudes regarding national pride, patriotism, duty and honour (“I’m here to defend the democracy of my country” blah, blah). And as the Game commences, the fraternizing generals of the participating countries dispassionately monitor the teams’ progress, stuffing themselves with various dishes as the ‘lower’ (and subservient) echelons suffer. The soldiers play the Game to win nothing of substance, and they are manipulated at various points to boost the ratings.

A French student enters the Game in an attempt to destroy it, but as he becomes part of the Game, he’s inevitably manipulated by it. And by the introduction of this character, Watkins makes some strong statements regarding revolutionary ethics, about working within the system, and about recuperation by the system. Although the film was made during the Vietnam War, the film seems chillingly prescient given the staging and orchestration of the Iraq war, with key points covered by major news stations in theatrical entertainment fashion. The Gladiators is a deeply subversive, thought-provoking film, and there’s an entire audience out there for this incredible film if people knew about it. Watkins is hardly the darling of mainstream media, and so his films remain largely ignored. Re-released on DVD in 2006, extras include The Diary of an Unknown Soldier–a 17 minute film made by Watkins, a Watkins filmography, and a 12 page booklet which includes a self-interview with this amazing director.

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Filed under (Anti) War, British, Peter Watkins, Political/social films