10 March 2018

BPM and The Young Karl Marx


BPM: Beats Per Minute (120 battements par minute) tells the story of AIDS activists with ACT UP Paris in the 1990s, and its scenes of ACT UP meetings are among the most compelling representations of everyday political planning and argument I know of other than the extraordinary land reform debate scene in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. (There's also a powerful debate scene in Loach's later The Wind that Shakes the Barley, but Land and Freedom is even more remarkable in my eyes because it so patiently dramatizes a kind of conversation rarely even imagined by most of its likely viewers. Almost any other director would pare such scenes down to soundbites, but Campillo lets us watch discussions play out and doesn't simplify the arguments into pro/con battles. We see the characters react, think, respond.

Even in a movie like Land and Freedom, the narrative starts with a focal character and brings us into the story via that focal character. One of the most revolutionary moves BPM makes is to flip this structure. We begin with the group, and only slowly get to know the two characters who will turn out to be the protagonists. It's a risky choice, because as audiences we're conditioned to latch on to individuals and to expect a story to be told through them, so a narrative that only slowly moves toward an individual story (or small set of parallel individual stories) may be frustrating, even bewildering. "Who should I root for?" the viewer asks. "What figure should I attach my sympathies to?"

What BPM requires is that we first sympathize with the group and only later find our way toward individual stories. By doing so, we don't reduce the group's complexities to a few individual personalities, but instead, even when the film is heartwrenching within an individual story, we always have the larger context at the back of our mind. This is one solution to the Brechtian problem of what to do with the intellect when individual sentiment threatens to overwhelm knowledge of the larger field shaping the individual story: we don't need to be distanced from the individual story, nor does it need to be defamiliarized; instead, a narrative web needs to be woven carefully enough that the parts are never separate from the whole.


BPM begins with shots of an ACT UP action that could as easily be from a verité-style documentary as from a fictional film, and it continues in that mode, but there's also always another style shadowing it, a more impressionistic style, one that lingers on molecules of light and later lets memories and realities merge.

Immediately after the opening scene, the film cuts to that evening's weekly ACT UP meeting and the screen is now filled not with various people in the midst of disrupting an event but with one person explaining ACT UP to four newcomers, saying he expects they've seen some actions on TV. Yes, we have. The film is welcoming us into its world in the same way that new ACT UP members would be welcomed in, and it lets us get to know that world similarly -- no real explanation for the conversations and arguments that we're plunged into the midst of, and so we have to learn our way, figure out what we think, choose our own sides.

One piece of knowledge the film helps us feel our way to is that newcomers quickly became veterans in ACT UP. Because so many members were HIV-positive, their ability to keep working as activists was often short. In that first meeting scene, one of the founders is memorialized, and a speaker says that many of the people in the room may not have known or may not remember him, since he stopped going to meetings as he got sicker. One of the four new members is pretty far along in his illness, and just as we get to know him, he dies and is memorialized with a march. This is early in the film, and it prepares us for the much longer road ahead as we settle in to the story of the protagonists, Sean (veteran activist) and Nathan (newcomer), who become lovers, one positive and the other not.


Narrative time is manipulated through subtle editing (by Campillo, Stéphanie Léger, and Anita Roth) that creates gaps where what were future events are suddenly past, and where relationships between characters build and develop in ways we don't see but then must piece together in our imagination. There's a slice-of-life, even voyeuristic, quality to this, as if we drop in on the lives we're watching, but more importantly it creates a sense of the preciousness of healthy time, of the way AIDS makes life slip by so quickly that there's no time even to build real memories. This is vital to creating a felt sense of the urgency in ACT UP's activism. At the end, when Campillo slows things down, it is excruciating. We need to understand some choices Nathan makes, and those choices are not ones that can be intellectualized, they must be felt.

The meeting scenes are impressive, but equally impressive are the sex scenes — not because of the sex, though it's fairly graphic, but because of how the partners talk to each other, and what they talk about. Like the scenes of the ACT UP meetings, the sex scenes show ways of behaving with each other and talking to each other that are not part of mainstream discourse (in this case the discourse of mainstream heterosexual behavior).


Mainstream discourse in the form of familiar genre conventions is key to understanding the quiet radicalism of Raoul Peck's new movie, The Young Karl Marx. In form, this film is a standard biopic, simplifying complex lives and history into clear narrative beats for a two hour movie, giving us two protagonists who at first don't get along and then work together to triumph over adversity. That the protagonists are Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels hardly matters to the template. Yet it is in the film's faithfulness to the template that its audacity resides.

I became most aware of this during one moment in particular at the end of the movie: Engels is speaking at a meeting of the League of the Just and tears down the League's banner, replacing it with that of the Communist League — and at that moment, traditional instrumental music rises to perform the utterly familiar task of stoking our feeling of triumph and accomplishment. So far so biopic. But what are we feeling triumph and accomplishment for? Communism! The film has checkmated our sympathies to be aligned with Engels' call for a revolutionary, violent fight on behalf of the workers against the bourgeoisie. Then all the final scenes of the film lead us, through the protocols of the biopic genre, to celebrate and feel great happiness for the publication of The Communist Manifesto.


The only way that The Young Karl Marx really breaks with biopic traditions is in its spoken languages. Peck had to cast seriously multilingual actors, because what he has them do is a linguistic feat: most of the main characters switch back and forth between two or three different languages, sometimes within the course of a single conversation, or even a single sentence. Partly, this is simply for the sake of verisimilitude and historical accuracy, but it seems to me there's a greater purpose (verisimilitude always sits toward the bottom of any list of my own priorities, so whether the purpose is greater to Peck, I don't know, but it is for me): as a way of making internationalist solidarity a central component of the film itself. Had Peck made the film only in English, he might have been able to cast more famous American and British actors, and would have had access to a somewhat wider audience, since subtitles often prevent a movie from reaching a truly mass audience. Though the film's genre is that of popular movies, its language — both how and what its characters speak — is not.

The Young Karl Marx ends with a montage of images since the Communist Manifesto, images of triumph and tragedy, with Bob Dylan singing "Like a Rolling Stone" over it all, the excerpt of the song keyed to the chorus asking, "How does it feeeeeel?" Peck's montage is heavy-handed and undercooked, like much else in the film, but that question Dylan sings out is an important question for both The Young Karl Marx and BPM — two movies that, via very different approaches, utilize the cinema's capacity for eliciting emotion in ways that turn that emotion toward knowledge. They never hide from the emotional life of activism, but they also use the emotional power of melodrama to bring the meanings of specific historical activisms to life for contemporary viewers. BPM seems vastly more successful at this to me, but that may just be because The Young Karl Marx never quite embraces its melodrama fully and always seems to be working too hard to be cinematically respectable rather than creatively powerful. It's not a bad movie, by any means, and it's a pretty good biopic, but BPM shows the possibilities of a truly engaged historical-political filmmaking.

It seems worthwhile to end with a passage from Deborah Gould's extraordinary book Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS, many pages of which are appropriate to discussion of both of these films:
There are strong biases in U.S. society against anger and protest, and, not surprisingly, against the two in combination. Angry protests violate norms of decorum and typically are seen as unnecessary in a democratic polity like the United States. In part as a result, shame, embarrassment, and fear of social rejection readily attach to political activities that oc- cur outside routine channels. In that sense, feelings, which might seem trivial when exploring all things political, are profoundly consequential. Given their consequentiality, it seems vital to think about the ways in which feelings are produced; the ways in which power relationships are exercised through and reproduced in our feelings; the ways in which a society’s or social group’s emotional habitus disciplines us; and how our feelings, as well as a given emotional habitus, shape our views of what is politically possible, desirable, and necessary, thereby helping to establish a political horizon and to determine whether we turn to political activism—and in what forms, if we do.