FF36 - Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres)

Intro by John Roderick

1968 was a hell of a year: Protests erupted around the world against Vietnam, against the old guard, against I Love Lucy, Brylcreem, Levittown and the cops in Alabama, but against bigger things, too: Against capitalism and authoritarianism and colonialism and racism and inequality. We know about the protests in Berkeley and Prague, but they happened in Pakistan and Brazil, too. It was like 1848, a year where a new world threatened to sweep into existence. Paris, where student protests swelled in size until joined by droves of workers that precipitated a general strike, came to exemplify the time. All of France was shut down and briefly Charles de Gaulle fled to Germany. The protest almost spawned a revolution.

I say briefly, because it was less than 24 hours and then De Gaulle was back calling for new elections which he won handily. But the spring of 1968 had a lasting effect. No one loved De Gaulle and he was gone within a year and in the long run the ideals of the protesters changed the trajectory of France. There was a new ideology brewing in those universities that in many ways had more power to change the world than any column of tanks. I'm talking about post-structuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism. Now: There's film criticism and then there is film criticism and then there is critique de film and this podcast that does not really fall into any of those three categories. In fact: It barely qualifies as three guys talking about movies and I seriously question whether it meets the minimum standards of even being a podcast.

But we're lucky to live in a world where everyone is a film critic, because it means the 10.000 tumblr pages devoted to analyzing the Marxist subtext of Moana generates so much content noise that you can pretty much say anything about anything and nothing really rises much above the din unless you look for it. So: Thanks anyway for being here! But it wasn't always so. Once upon a time the film critic held a lofty position in public life and nowhere was this more true than in France in the 1960s. Film criticism then joined forces with this brand new post-structuralism, each legitimizing the other to offer a new and radical critique not just of the policies of the ruling order, but of the whole way of seeing from which the ruling order came.

Film critics stood athwart this great 20th century art form of film and subjected it to a withering eye. Of course this intellectual universe of deconstruction was pushed through the cheesecloth of 50 years of undergraduate incomprehension and tarted up with the toenail polish of Howard Zinn, and it's effectively now an endless war that every day makes my Twitter feed a fresh hell. But the war started a long time ago. What does this have to do with Army of Shadows? Well, for us living through a similar time where critics have subsumed creators, it should not surprise us too much that this movie was deemed incorrect by a small cadre of influential intellectuals. Why?

Well, it showed de Gaulle briefly, and probably accurately for what it's worth, as being the de-facto leader of the resistance, which was just not a fashionable read of history in 1969. Army of Shadows didn't celebrate de Gaulle, it just showed him doing what he did, which is hang out in London and try to organize the resistance at a distance. What the critics of 1969 expected was, I don't know, a depiction of him as a pirate or a murderer, maybe a paper maché marionette or a claymation rat? Who knows! Army of Shadows was denounced and suppressed for its failure of tone and went generally unseen until its rediscovery and re-evaluation almost 40 years later in 2006.

We're lucky to have this film now and fortunate that the long arc of history rebukes zealot's just as it does the reactionaries they despise. Melville did not live to see his film reappraised and his reputation restored. C'est la vie! We're not communists, but we can still have comrades on today's review of the 1969 Jean-Pierre Melville neorealist forgotten masterpiece Army of Shadows.

Discussion between Ben and John while rating this film

(Ben:) Yeah, this film was an amazing watch for me. I didn't really expect it to be the film that it was and I found that what film I thought it was changed several times over the course of watching it. It is a film in which a guy who really did it, who was really in the resistance, is basing his film on a novel by another guy who was really in the resistance and is kind of challenging the viewer to ask themself the question: "What would I do? Would I be the barber that doesn't ask questions but trades coats so that the guy can hopefully evade the Germans that are looking for him? Would I be in the resistance? Would I be one of the cops who is helping the Germans actively?"

I don't want to turn this into a total downer, but I've been thinking a lot about like the fact that we live in a country that lost 1500 children and is doing just unspeakably horrible things every day now. We grew up being told that we live in the greatest country on earth and I think that there are a lot of things that we can cite to defend that position, but there are also a lot of people that are working actively in the other direction. We are not occupied, we are not at war as such, but this movie really made me think about what I need to be doing in times where my country and my countrymen are doing things in our name that I really strongly disagree with.

I don't think I'm going to be bombing bridges or doing situlent (?) drive-bys, but it made me think a lot about that and I think that that is the stated goal of the film and the effect that it had, even 50 years after it was released, even the crappy print that I watched, a spectacularly beautiful film and it achieves both some of the highest achievements in artistic filmmaking but also in being a film about real shit and about being committed to your own beliefs.

(John:) I think it's a truism of any resistance movement that, as you contemplate whether or not to start one, you talk openly about it on a podcast, because when they are rounding people up and putting them in internment camps, they are definitely going to start with people that haven't already discussed their responsibility to resist the occupation.

(Ben:) I'm not trying to say I'm gonna fucking go start chucking grenades at ICE offices or anything.

(John:) A film like this is so much food for thought and the problem with situations like this and the one you describe, Ben, is that we're always fighting the last war. It is very popular right now to use Nazis as a metaphor all the time to describe every political situation that seems heavy handed. It is easy to forget that even four years ago the Obama administration was characterized by people on the fringe-right as being a Nazi organization and the FBI were jackbooted thugs that were coming to take their guns, just like the Nazis! What you never see is the form that authoritarianism is going to take next. It never duplicates the form that it took before, but it always morphs to accommodate present conditions.

Looking around us right now you can see five potential directions that authoritarianism is striving to take in our own time. Is it going to be like a top down imposition of it from the U.S. government? Or is it going to come from somewhere else, is it going to be some movement that flares up and suddenly attracts the interest of a majority of the population? How did those things happen? How does it work that something can burble up out of the mire and become a movement? And what side of it do you want to be on? It is easy to say "I don't side with the thugs!", but what happens if the thugs share some of your sympathies?

What happens you kind of identify with the movement a little bit and maybe it's okay to restrict the freedoms of bad people? What if it's okay to put some people in prison camps, because they are bad? You don't agree with all the excesses of the new regime, but some of them are surely an improvement over what it used to be when it was just radicals in the streets. We are living in a world right now where we can tailor our input very easily to comport with our with the ideology that we want reinforced. You can just read the news that you want to read, and you can just spend time online with people that already agree with you, and you reinforce your worldview.

You recapitulate the political theory that you are hungriest for and pretty soon everybody else looks like an enemy and pretty soon it's: "Wow! That didn't cost very much for you to denounce an entire class of people and and imagine them being put into a camp!" It is veyr easy and it is not just on the right, I see it all the time! People who very flippantly say: "Well, these people don't have civil rights because they are denying my people their civil rights and so I'm justified!" That's where that bug of authoritarianism gets into normal people and when civil society starts to crumble, it is easy to sit here and say "Well, I won't be a member of the Trump army!", but what Army are you a member of and what happens if they take power and what happens if they start lining people up against a wall? Are you complicit? How is history going to judge you?

(Ben:) Well I for one wouldn't want to be part of any army that would have me as a member.

(John:) Well, you know what? You're a member of Friendly Fire army then. Not only are you a member, you're a Reichsmarschall!

(Ben:) God! Jesus! The tweets we're going to get about just that! Holy Shit!

(John:) You expend so much energy trying to put down Adam's polishness, which is very suspect.

(Adam:) Yeah, you are practically an Oberwaffenführer. It is really creepy!

(Ben:) It is very problematic, that episode of the show that I spent a few minutes going dunking on Adam for being Polish.

(Adam:) Rob edited 20 minutes of it out, but it was pretty bad!

(John:) The people can't hear our offline conversations where you basically are just one Polish joke after another.

(Ben:) The volume and loudness of laughs I can get out of John for doing a Polack joke on Adam is all the reward I will ever need to think that that's a great idea going for it.

(John:) That was my biggest LOL because it took me a second.

I really liked this film and particularly for those reasons. There are the movies that we watch, as you guys describe, by just like sitting on a pork chop with a pork chop for a hat eating a pork chop, which is how I picture you guys watching Rambo, just covered in pork chops. Then you get a film like this that you walk around with for a few weeks or longer and if you watch this movie and you plug all the parts into waiting outlets in your mind about how things are, then you're not paying close enough attention, because there is no easy analog and you should be struggling to make the difficult connections to a lot of these ideas, and I certainly am. I don't mean to sit and prescribe it, but this type of stuff causes me to reflect on our current day also in ways that make me uncomfortable and on my own conduct.

For that reason I want to give this movie a lot of praise. It's a very long movie where there's not a single explosion except for some firecrackers out the window of that Lancaster bomber model. The grenades they tossed down into the firing range were smoke grenades and that was not enough pay off for me. There was that machine gun going and that was like: "Yeah! War movie!" and then some smoke grenades.

The pacing is very late 1960s in terms of: We get to spend a lot of time watching somebody think, which is a mindset you have to get into: "I'm watching this movie and I'm going to sit with this movie as we move slowly from room to room." I thought it was black and white, if that gives you an indication of like where my mind was. I'm looking at pictures of it online now and I see that it is in very washed-out color. I guess I should have known because the guy had a brown leather jacket and I recognized it as brown.

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