The protesters’ raised hands

Today, as riot police dispersed the last protesters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Organized Protest area, which became an “autonomous zone” for the past two weeks as part of nation-wide protests against police brutality, images of the zone’s creation and operation flashed on the screen.  The fists of the assembled brought to mind the multitude of raised hands in the famous opening of a major post-revolutionary movie.

The French multimedia artist and writer Chris Marker (1921-2012) released his four-hour film essay A Grin without a Cat (original French title:  “There is red in the air”) in 1976 and its abridged three-hour version in 1993.   The film, primarily a massive montage of documentary footage of radical struggles, traces the dissolution of the European Old Left and the rise and fall of the global New Left (1967-77).  It opens with a dazzling reconfiguration of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) where snippets of the Soviet silent are mixed with snippets of demonstrations and funerals from other countries and eras.  The combination shows protests erupting and burying their dead throughout the 20th century.  A composition by Boccherini, reconfigured by Berio, sounds a march at once defiant and mournful.

This brief section introduces the first half of the film, “Fragile Hands,” and is populated by hundreds of hands rising, denouncing, proclaiming, arguing, joining, honoring.  These hands of the protesters are strong but fragile.  Their fists defeated oppression but were also brutally destroyed by the police, the army, as well as sectarianism.  The introductory section closes with a young guide sitting decades later on the Odessa steps monumentalized in Battleship Potemkin, which have become a popular tourist attraction.  While paying tribute to struggles and sacrifices, the introduction launches a melancholic elegy which culminates in the second part of the film, “Severed Hands.”  Around the world, argues Marker, the march of insurrection has been both vanguard and vanquished.

Is the revolution doomed to fail, surviving only as a historical memory, often of events that did not even take place, like the Odessa massacre of 1905?  This was also the central question of a contemporary three-hour film essay, Milestones (1975), by Marker’s collaborator Robert Kramer, one of the Grin’s voice overs.   The semiotic didacticism of the introduction to the “Fragile Hands” suggests that revolts like the recent one in Seattle may be too quickly celebrated.  Instead, enthusiasm and support for them should be combined with critical commemorations of the dissolution of earlier revolts, as is Marker’s film essay.  Before more hands are severed and utopias buried, it is important to understand how their fragility may be mobilized in autonomist projects that endure.

1 July 2020

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