Documentary a Day: Herbert’s Hippopotamus (1996)

Director Paul Alexander Juutilainen

Herbert’s Hippopotamus is a film about the New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse.  The film details his coming to the USA and his experiences while he was teaching a UC San Diego in California.  Marcuse reached a high level of fame in California and around the world for his role in the student and radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s (although his involvement as a Marxist theorist goes all the way back to the German Revolution towards the end of WWI).  His most notable student was Angela Davis, who is featured throughout the film quite often, recounting her experiences with Marcuse.  His celebrity-like status would remind a contemporary viewer of Slajov Zizek, although Marcuse was much more active in social movements even though he remained an intellectual the whole time.

In the film and and subsequent reviews, he is often accused of being a Communist, although it’s “cleared up” that he never joined the Party, although he did remain a Marxist and employed a Marxist analysis of his critique of industrial society (including the USSR).  His politics made him have enemies in high places, including the American Legion (which already has a bad history with the Left), and Ronald Reagan: who was for removing Marcuse from his position.

The film is an interesting account of a radical thinker of the 1960s who had a complicated relationship with the college he worked at, and capitalist society at large: of which he was a major critic.

At the time of this posting, the film can be viewed in its entirety on Google Video or YouTube:

Google Video

Further viewing:

A lecture by the co-editor of Marcuse’s selected writings – YouTube


Documentary a Day: Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986)

Director: Anne Lewis

This short (around half an hour) documentary is about a strike by West Virginian coal miners that got violent in the early 1980s.  It should be of interest today as some of the main players of the strike continue to make national news headlines: Richard Trumpka, who is now the president of the AFL-CIO, and Don Blankenship, Massey Energy CEO who got national headlines when a mine operated by Massey exploded a few years ago, killing many workers inside.  Massey Energy also engages in a lot of “mountain top removal” which has become quite a contentious issue in West Virginia, for workers, environmentalists and the coal industry.

This documentary accounts for a strike that got violent and was a very important event for the union movement of West Virginia (the unions have consistently been busted since).  Interviews with striking workers, and scabs that were brought in either from other states or interestingly were local police before the strike, are contrasted throughout the film.  The class consciousness of the striking workers is quite high, the violent history of West Virginia’s labor disputes remains an important lesson for them throughout these interviews.  It’s also interesting to note that a high level of solidarity with South African workers is kept with the striking workers who are well aware that Massey is exploiting workers on an international scale and that solidarity is important if they wanted to have a fighting chance.

Another interesting part of the documentary are the interviews with Don Blankenship and the scab workers.  Blankenship makes similar arguments as a boss of a profit-making corporation that the fictional boss in Godard’s Tout Va Bien makes to not only justify his company’s position against the workers, but to defend capitalism itself.  The scabbing workers often either are visibly uncomfortable about the backlash by the community and striking workers and are very open about the fact that they regret what they’re doing, or their excuses rest on relatively empty notions of “freedom” and the “right to work.”

This short film demonstrates the aspect of coal mining that is all too often left out of the current debate on moutain top removal, and reminds me of a Monthly Review article titled “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism” that links these two important subjects.

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety here:

Links of interest:

Monthly Review Article – on strikes in West Virginia which includes the one this documentary is about

Ambush at Keystone – An account by Maoist Mike Ely about his invovlement in a wildcat strike in West Virginia in the 1970s

Matewan – A late 1980s film about earlier labor disputes in West Virginia.

Documentary a Day: Cuba! Africa! Revolution! (2007)

Director: Jihan El Tahri’

Also known as “Cuba, an African Odyssey”

This documentary offers an excellent account of Cuban involvement in Africa.  The documentary accounts for a long period in this “Chapter of Cold War history” (thus is too much to sum up in one post here).  The documentary is in two parts and covers the time from when Che first went to Africa to help with the conflict in the Congo all the way until the fall of Apartheid.

(Image from Wikipedia)

The documentary also does an excellent job at contextualizing Cuba’s involvement as an anti-imperialist endeavor.  It is very sympathetic and honest about the fact that Cuba was instrumental in ending colonialism in Africa (especially via Cuba’s invovlement in Angola) .  It’s hard to explore this topic and not come to the conclusion that Cuba’s involvement in Africa was anything but liberating to the people of Africa.

The most interesting thing about the documentary is its account for the relationship between the USSR and Cuba in the context of involvement in Africa.  The documentary portrays the USSR as not really wanting to get too involved in Africa for various diplomatic reasons, yet Cuba was the driving force here.  Cuba was acting independently and even trying to use its relationship with the USSR to help liberate Africa from colonialism by playing cold war politics very intelligently.  This certainly dispells the myth of “all allies of the USSR just took dictates from Moscow” as Cuba, in this case, was the real driving force.

I highly recommend this documentary to those interested in Cuba and anti-imperialist struggles in general.

Further Reading:

Africans call for BBC to screen “Cuba! Africa! Revolution!”

(Edit: the original publishing of this I was under the impression that this was a BBC documentary, which it is not.  I have edited the post to reflect this)

The Trotsky (2010)

Director: Jacob Tierney

When I started this site, I never thought I’d be writing about a teen comedy in the project to document, analyze, and display films with strong Leftist themes.  But after seeing the film The Trotsky, that had to change.  A teen comedy filled with references to the Spanish Civil War, a Ken Loach retrospective.  Its director described it as “Reds in high school that makes you laugh” (YouTube video)

Boredom or Apathy?

The film has a very bizarre premise: the main character Leon believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky.  And to top that off with being a teen film, it was certain to make for a strange film (which isn’t to say a bad film).  The main conflict (or contradictions) in the film revolves around the main character trying to live out his life the way that Trotsky did.  Through this process he finds him self on more than one occasion trying to unionize (first his father’s workplace, then his high school).

The structure of the film is similar to many teen comedy films, and at first I felt that the premise was just a “wacky plot device” instead of an actual attempt to discuss the nature of class struggle.  But as the film developed, the message of social justice and organizing resistance became the driving force and motivation for the characters.  After a while into the film, the illusions of being the reincarnation of Trotsky took a backseat to the main characters drive to organize his fellow students.

One of the major themes in the film is about the struggle between “apathy and boredom” of the youth of Canada (which can certainly be applied to the United States as well).  The principal of the school (an authoritarian or repressive figure for the film) is sure that the students are apathetic to the plight of Leon, and after the first attempt to organize a walk-out of class: the principal seems to be right, as most of the students do not take it seriously even though they walked out.

As Leon wrestles with this throughout the film, he plots on how to best mobilize his high school against their conditions to give them a voice.  This is what the unique aspect of the film should be seen as and is what made me consider the progressive themes in it to not just be a plot device, but instead are the goal of the film.

This progressive message, guided by achieving socialism for the main character, is an interesting thing to appear in a film like this, and while it certainly won’t achieve a “wide release” that many Hollywood teen comedy films do, it’s an excellent contribution to the genre that for reasons that ought to be obvious aren’t of interest to the Left.  But the way in which the contemporary youth, and the perceived apathy, are dealt with in the film is an interesting take that offers a bit of optimism for a generation who is often labeled one that just “doesn’t care.”

La Faute à Fidel (2006)

Directed by Julie Gavras

Julie Gavras’ debut narrative film focuses on a sort of “coming of age” story of a young girl (Anna) who is raised in a family in political transition. Anna’s family becomes more radicalized in post-1968 France where her father takes on the cause of defending Allende’s Chile while her mother goes into womens’ liberation. The story revolves around Anna’s anxiety due to the drastic changes in her own life that must occur as a result of the ongoing political changes within her immediate family. The story essentially uses Anna’s growing up as an analogy to explain certain political changes that occurred in the West in places like France during the time the film takes place (the 1970s).

Anna’s father feels quite guilty for his family’s support of Franco in Spain which motivates him to become a passionate supporter of Allende in Chile. Their family hosts exiles, activists working on Allende’s campaigns, etc. throughout the film which make from some interesting interactions between the young Anna and the Communist activists. For example there is a scene where Anna is up late one night and has a conversation with the activists about trading an orange for money. They insist that trade should not be done for personal benefit over another but in an egalitarian way, while Anna resists these progressive notions. The conversation is a sort of “Communism for children” style of dialogue that demonstrates the bourgeois ideology that still dominates Anna’s preconceptions of the world and makes for an interesting scene when those notions are directly challenged.

As the story progresses, Anna beings to challenge these preconceptions in places like her Catholic school which leads her to some trouble (after having already been removed from certain religious classes in the school). These developments make her grandparents quite uncomfortable and they clearly are opposed to the leftward turn the family has made.

There is also tension within the family that is itself representative of greater tension amongst the Left of that time. Anna’s mother becomes quite involved with abortion rights, while her father sees this as a sort of deviation or even a negative struggle to get involved in. This is of course one of the biggest criticisms of the “Old Left”: the theoretical and political “blind spot” of what the Old Left considered to be single issue causes that were considered to be distractions from the more important class struggle. These questions don’t get resolved in the most comfortable way in the film, just as they weren’t “comfortably resolved” in the real history of the Left.

The film does an excellent job at using the perspective of a child to explain a time that was quite crucial in understanding the contemporary Left and at least some of the important developments that got it to where it is today.

The American Ruling Class (2007)

Director John Kirby

“All ruling classes are based on merit”

The American Ruling Class is a film that describes itself as a “dramatic-documentary-musical.” It mixes a fictional narrative form with a traditional documentary: with two amateur actors playing the lead roles interviewing (or rather interacting with) various important figures in American society while being guided by Lewis Lapham throughout the film.

"Old Money"

The project of the film is rather straightforward, it asks a series of questions:  Is there an American ruling class?  If so, who is it comprised of?  and How does one join it?

It goes through these answers by having the two fiction characters, both recent graduates form Yale (one an aspiring business man who wants to work on Wall St. and the other an aspiring writer), meet various real life American figures.

The film oscillates from meetings with the business elite, to Democratic Socialist figures like Barbra Ehrenreich and “Reds” like Peter Seeger.  The characters are taken through various segments of American society, for example the sequence with Ehrenreich demonstrates how the working class is much more philanthropic than any wealthy businessman by what they provide to the ruling class and the amount they receive for their services (hint: not much).

My main problem with the film is that it takes the ruling class as more of a cultural phenomenon than an economic one to some extent.  The film constantly revisits the theme of “money rules everything” but doesn’t really do it from a very economic standpoint.  It’s all cultural to the writer of the film to some extent.  And while figures like Howard Zinn and Ehrenreich are featured in the film, they too (And perhaps as a result of the direction that the film wanted to go) focus on the “power of the elite via their desire to control” but not so much how the elite exist as a ruling class, and what that means.

The film also ends with a vague optimism about changing the world without prescribing any sort of way to do it.  While it does seem to be critical of the “change the system within” and the ending song even speaks of the “falling empire,” a real class analysis of how to change society is suspiciously absent here.  Now many Marxists would be accused of just projection too often their desire to see more class analysis in film and documentaries, especially when so much of it has been ignored even amongst the left today.  But in a film about the “American Ruling class” such a prescription of a more vibrant and militant labor movement seems to be the obvious conclusion here, but it doesn’t seem to be taken too seriously (other than a rather vague reference by Ehrenreich to “people will eventually demand better pay and change will come from that” in the middle of the film).

For the most part, from a Marxist stand point at least: the class analysis of the film is lacking quite a bit, yet it provides an interesting insider perspective on the American ruling class (often from the ruling class itself) and is certainly worth the time.  There are some awkward moments with the fictional characters, and the musical scenes aren’t really that good (although that could be a personal preference).  It critically examines the concept of the “American Dream” with the conclusion that the dream is a farce, but this could have been done in a more through way in terms of an actual class analysis. The cultural aspects of the ruling class are interesting, and just as interesting are the views of those who the film considers to be a part of that class. The answers to the questions the film sets out aren’t quite the clearest answers but the investigation the film goes into is pretty valuable nonetheless.

At the time of this writing the film can be viewed on Hulu

La Commune (2000)

La Commune

Peter Watkins

Review by Kate Devlin

Karl Marx regarded the Paris Commune (March-May 1871) as one of the two most important events of the 19th century. (the other one being the US Civil War). The French working class, long suffering under exploitation and oppression, had been in the vanguard of the French revolutions of 1789, 1793, 1830, and 1848. While these revolutions, by transferring power from the landed aristocracy to various factions of the bourgeoisie class paved the way for the development of industrial capitalism, the working class had been cheated out of any meaningful gains. The Jacobins of the first revolutionary period enacted the Le Chapelier law, outlawing workers organizing to better their conditions. The Revolution of 1848 was started by the Parisian working class. This revolution however was subverted by the industrial and financial elites. Worker’s organizations such as cooperative workshops were bloodily suppressed and thousands of working class activists were deported. The resulting bourgeoisie republic was highly unstable. Power struggles between factions of the bourgeoisie, as well as ruling classes continued fears of the lower middle classes and the urban working class, led to the 20 year rule of the corrupt comic opera regime of Louis Bonaparte, a process Marx described in the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”.

Go to fullsize image

Louis Napoleon led France into the disastrous Franco-Prussian War in 1870. France long had a huge gap between rich and poor. The working class of Paris had suffered under appalling living conditions. Fearful of unrest, the ruling class of France severely limited democratic municipal government in Paris. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and the siege of Paris the working class experienced famine, massive unemployment, and bombardment from the Prussians. Discontent was rife.

For self defense the people of Paris were organized into 260 largely self governing National Guard battalions. Adolphe Thiers, the head of the provisional government which had taken power after the ignominious flight of  Louis Napoleon, grew fearful of the Parisian worker’s unrest. Thiers sent elements of the army to seize the National Guard cannon. These were fought back by women from the working class Montmatre district.This triggered the event known as the Paris Commune. Many soldiers refused to fire on the people and joined the rebellion. Workers began seizing government office buildings and several widely hated generals and officials were seized. The Thiers government, in a panic, relocated to Versailles, about 20 miles from Paris. In Paris the city was reorganized along socialistic lines, giving workers control over their lives. There were enormous gains for women’s rights, education, and social protection. There were  moves towards worker control of industries and business.

La Commune

La Commune by the Canadian director Peter Watkins, is a “living history” recreation of this event. The events of the Paris Commune are not presented so much as past history but as part of a process which is still continuing in our own time .The entire film was staged in an abandoned factory outside Paris., The film is documentary style, with filming and interviews done by imaginary television crews, first for “Commune TV”, and then as the Commune faces defeat, by a pro-Versaillais TV station. The actors are non-professional and many are North African immigrants. Actors, sometimes breaking out of character, or as the characters they are portraying, discuss issues of class conflict, poverty, and oppression in our own time. In one scene a woman breaks out of character to discuss how burnt out she is by her job and that her work on the film makes her want to break from watching passive entertainment on TV and reread “State and Revolution” by Lenin. In another scene an actor begins discussing how he feels NGOs can be effective in fighting poverty in the Third World. A debate on this and similar issues ensues with his fellow “Communards”.

La Commune is 5 hours 45 minutes long. Its one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen and is certainly worth investing the time watching it.

The Commune was brutally suppressed, with between  30,000 and 50,000 people killed, including tens of thousands of workers who were summarily executed. Over 7,000 Communards were deported, mostly to remote French colonies in the South Pacific.

The Commune was the first case in modern history of the working class taking power and attempting to create a more humane society. Peter Watkins on his website said that one of his motivations for making the film was that the Paris Commune is severely marginalized in the French educational system. Its legacy, seldom discussed in today’s corporate media, has been an inspiration to the workers movement ever since. Watkin’s film is an excellent tribute to and recreation of this heroic event.

The Legend of Rita (2000)

Director: Volker Schlöndorff

The Legend of Rita is a film about a West German “terrorist” group who eventually ends up in the Eastern German Democratic Republic.  The group, which is based off of real historical groups like the Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Cells, goes through a series of failures in West Germany and is in crisis until Rita meets up with the Stasi while in transit to West Berlin.

The group goes through a disastrous jail break while trying to free their “leader” of sorts, and as a result, finds themselves in a difficult position.  They travel to the GDR where the Stasi help them get settled in in Paris.  After Rita has a deadly encounter with a police officer, they are again placed in limbo.

Rita on her way to work in the GDR

The Stasi officer gives them all an offer: to live in the GDR as average working class citizens.  The reaction by these revolutionaries says as much about the state of the Left at that point in history as it does about their characters.  Most of them seem to outright reject the idea.  They want to carry on the struggle in the West or go to a place where the Cold War has “gone hot.”  They almost view their entry into the working class in a “Socialist State” as punishment for their failures, which considering their clear Marxist orientation, shows a significant short-coming in their analysis of struggle.  The philosopher Slajov Zizek often says that the Left is constantly comfortable with its status resisting oppression and fighting it instead of offering a vision for an alternate world.  This comes out quite clearly for this group, except for Rita.

From this point on, the film revolves around Rita’s new life in the East.  The Stasi officer, while prepping her for her new life, says something along the lines of “We’re for the people, that’s why they’re against them” in response to a question Rita has.  It’s interesting to see this ideological phrase here, as the Stasi are not portrayed in a negative light throughout the film nor is East Germany.

The first shot we see of an East German worker is that of Tatjana who looks worn out and depressed.  It seems that this was a very intentional first glimpse into the life of the East German working class.  What follows is a scene of Tatjana’s coworkers picking on and making fun of Tatjana.  For Rita, who has been a Leftist revolutionary, she seems confused by this and asks them why they pick on her, and doesn’t seem satisfied with the answer (which is essentially just a continuation of picking on Tatjana).

Rita and Tatjana develop a close personal relationship that is compromised when Rita discovers that East German television is broadcasting news from the West about her fugitive status, and is identified by one of her co-workers.  Rita is then required to once again relocate and take on the identity of an East German who is not from the West (as opposed to her first fake identity).  She ends up as a day care worker, and develops a relationship with a man who she ends up almost getting married to (there’s some interesting dialogue that exposes the man’s view of gender roles that are quite conservative given the nature of the East German state and it’s more balanced gender relations than that of it’s Western counterpart).  By chance, she runs into one of her former comrades who now has a child.  Rita congratulates her and tells her that she’s glad to see her happy, when her friend responds with “what gave you that idea?”  Their farewell scene is bitter sweet, with the upset friend riding away on the bus with the East German anthem playing ironically in the background: as a sort of display of the awkward position of Rita, and East Germany at that point in general.

First Factory where Rita works in the GDR

As the story progresses, the Stasi officer meets with Rita telling her that “people are waking up” to the realities of the State and the Wall soon comes down.  Rita from this point has a harder and harder time evading the authorities.  She is having lunch with fellow workers when they read the paper and discover that the friend she had run into in an earlier scene was caught by the authorities, she defends the actions of the group, claiming that “they never did anything to hurt this country!”  Her co-workers just claim that terrorists are terrorists and shouldn’t be in their country.  The workers then go on to say how they’re excited to get Levis.  Rita breaks into a mini-speech about how East Germany was a revolutionary experiment, and how it went wrong along the way but was something worth defending.  She is promptly ignored by her co-workers (thus being essentially dismissed as an idealist).  Her speech in a way represents the innocence of even the most rigid of the “Actually Existing Socialist” states, and how, even in their significant and real shortcomings, the alternatives that would eventually come to those states would provide devastation to the populations (for example East Germany now has significant unemployment, few social programs, etc.)

The film uses Rita to represent the socialist ideal in a way.  The bleakness and rigidity of East Germany is not ignored, but it is not a film that is a vulgar anti-Communist film like most about such subjects.  It is considered to be a part of the Ostalgie phenomenon, where East Germany have a certain nostalgia for the former East.  That’s not to say that they wish the Stasi were back, monitoring their lives, but they recognize how their lives were indeed better under even a rigid socialist state.  This film does an excellent job at capturing the mood of East Germany: while “the game was up” for the ruling party in the East, there was still something redeemable about the idea of a workers state enough to where a film like this could be made so many years later and portray the East in a “not-so-bad” light.

Avatar (2009)

Director: James Cameron

There’s quite a lot of discussion amongst leftist “film critics” about the nature of the new film Avatar.  It’s been described as everything from a great anti-Imperialist adventure in solidarity to the most recent prime example of a White Man’s Guilt story.

One recent article that seems to have gained some popularity on the online world titled When will White People Stop Making Movies like Avatar? by Annalee Newitz where the argument revolves around the thesis that Avatar is essentially a story of “white guilt” and a fantasy of how to deal with and alleviate that white guilt.  For Newitz, Avatar is more of a story about race and the oppression of a certain race as told by the oppressor’s perspective than it is about a story of Western Imperialism, which of course has historically included race as a specific dynamic/characteristic of that imperialism.  A response to this article was posted at The FIRE Collective’s website titled Avatar: Condescending Racism or a Story of Transformation and Struggle? where the author argues that Newitz’s analysis lacks the critical points of the story of Avatar:  Imperialism and Resistance.

Both articles agree that the story is one of a white oppressor who decides to join with the oppressed after realizing that Imperialism is wrong.  Where they disagree is in what manner that resistance is executed.  According to Newitz, the story is full of “white leadership” that was required to save the Na’vi in the film.  Their resistance by themselves was not an option and required the oppressor to step in an decide to help.  The story being from the perspective of the white main character was for Newitz and example of this sort of fantasy being materialized as a “White Man’s Burden” sort of struggle: where white leadership was required.

The Kasama Project has also posted various articles on Avatar with similar discussion on whether the story is problematic or not, to what stereotypes are being appealed to throughout the film, etc.  The WSWS has also has an article titled Why are Critics Lauding Avatar? which includes many of the same criticisms about the race dynamics and the shallowness of the story line.

It seems that there is a major philosophical difference in these various interpretations rooted in identity politics versus a materialist anti-Imperialist interpretation.  That’s not to say that those who criticize the potential racism in the film are “just diving into identity politics” or that they are essentializing race over a focus on Imperialism (although I do believe that Newitz’s article does this to some extent), or that those who praise the film for being anti-Imperialist are completely ignoring the major problems with the film.

I would say that to completely dismiss the film or to uncritically praise it are both problematic.  There is some importance to having on of the biggest Hollywood productions having an anti-Imperialist message as its plot device (which can be analogous for the original colonial period to our current conflicts).  And another plot device used is that of some members of the oppressing group rejecting their role and even violently opposing the oppressed to assure an end to that Imperialism.  I do agree, however, that there are significant problems with the way in which this is played out in the film: for example Jake Sully (the main character) does become some mythical savior figure in the film, and the Na’vi are fetishized in an almost orientalist way.

James Cameron himself cited that the story is about the “sins” of humanity itself, not of any particular event or struggle.  It’s quite obvious that the various sections of actors in the film are representatives of the current and past struggles that the West has been engaged in, and that of course has inspired his writing.  But his story is indeed not a “revolutionary leftist” one, and wasn’t intended to be.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t, as leftists, praise the anti-Imperialism of it but of course we should point out its serious flaws.

Overall, it was a film that achieved major technical achievements in the context of a left-Liberal story.  It’s problems seriously undermine it to be something that the revolutionary left should praise, but it can still be a starting point for discussion and discourse for such a popular film.

Further Reading:

Tout Va Bien (1973)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Tout Va Bien is perhaps Godard’s most overtly Marxist film.  It’s entire structure is a diagnosis of class relations and essentially a demonstration of the aftermath of May ’68 (which is referenced quite often in the film), while constantly reminding the audience that France 1972 is not May 1968.

The film revolves around two main characters, one of which is played by Jane Fonda.  (The film itself has it’s own political history of receiving as much funding as it did by getting such a famous actress to be in the film which is actually referenced in the film itself).  Fonda’s character is an American journalist living in France as a correspondent to an American radio news company who is married to a filmmaker who was once a New Wave director who during the film had moved on to make commercials (he later claimed that making commercials was “more honest”)

The film begins with an examination of film making itself, with an opening sequence of checks being signed to the different departments and people who made the film, an opening montage that overtly sets up the structure of the story (even referencing the fact that a famous actress should be sought out).  After the main characters are established, it doesn’t take long for the film to focus on the factory.

The political situation in the factory is that of disarray.  The workers are engaged in a wildcat strike that the union (the CGT) does not support.  The boss finds himself helplessly defending his position in society while the leftists are being written off as “troublemakers.”  This is of course quite similar to the situation in May ’68, where the French Communist Party (PCF) did not back the wildcat strikes and student protest movement.  Godard constantly reminds us that this is not ’68 and that the situation is quite more dire here.  The film has a mood of defeat about it (the filmmaker character expresses this quite explicitly in his ending monologue).

With this atmosphere, the two main characters were scheduled for an interview with the manager of the factory about modern management skills.  They of course are thrown into the turmoil of the strike and are in turn locked up with the manager.  The manager is confronted by the two protagonists and is forced to justify the system of capitalism itself: claiming that Marxism has lost its relevance due to the increased standards of living for all in society (a straw man argument of course) and arguing for a society where classes cooperate instead of conflict.

Cross Section of the Factory

Another major antagonist in the film is the CGT representative.  The CGT at the time was aligned with the PCF and continued to be until the 1990s.  The CGT representative demonstrates how the PCF (and in turn the CGT) were moving to the right: arguing for negotiations with the capitalist class/management and maintaining “order.”  They were just as opposed to the troublemakers as the police.

The film also deals with male chauvinism, with minor references towards the beginning of Fonda’s character being a Feminist, there’s a scene in the film where one of the male workers tells the female workers that they should just be at home cooking, the other female workers back her up and call his chauvinism out for what it is.

After the two protaganists are released (and the workers apologize for locking them up, citing that they had no other option), Fonda’s character ends up trying to do a story in the grocery store where a long scene showing people buying groceries while the Communist Party is in the background trying to sell books (A good quote she has to sum up the grocery store in her monologue that is meant to be for her upcoming article “outside the factory it’s still like a factory” which demonstrates how society is shaped by the capitalist structure).  Here the PCF is portrayed as just another commodity to be bought and sold on the market place, just as much a part of the system as the groceries that the consumers are buying.  Then, a group of radical students comes up and begins to question the PCF representative, pointing out contradictions and inconsistencies in their line.  They then start leading a sort of mass theft of the grocery store, encouraging and inciting and radicalizing the consumers while shouting “everything is free!”  The camera then slowly makes its way to the exist while showing the police suppressing the mini riot.  This is an important demonstration of the tactics of some New Left groups that were called into question at the time: for example the Weather Underground‘s “Days of Rage” event was nothing more than an invite of police repression which was condemned by organizations like the Black Panthers.

Grocery Store Scene

Then there are scenes of the militant factory workers being brutally repressed by the police where even one of the workers is murdered and a long scene (which is often returned to) of the militant workers being marched in a line on the way to jail.

Then the protagonists return to their normal lives and reflect on the recent events and as a consequence reflect on their own positions in society.  Their marriage is shaken by the events and their self-reflection and we are made just to know that there is some uncertainty ahead.

Overall, it’s a film about the politics of the New Left versus the “old guard” of organizations like the Communist Party, and the consequences of the respective stances each position took in the late 1960s.  The film is almost like a Post-Script to May ’68: demonstrating how the failures of the Left lead to essentially a betrayal of the working class.  I don’t think Godard’s final conclusion is that the New Left should be seen uncritically, but he certainly does demonstrate the problems with totally rejecting it.

Further reading: Criterion Collection Essay on Tout Va Bien

There’s also an interesting interview with Godard about the film on YouTube