‘Contraband Cinema’ Brings Political Films to BAM


BAM’s 33-film program “Contraband Cinema” asks, per its manifesto, “What makes a political film?” Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) concludes that there’s no other kind, reading worker alienation from a series of movie scenes set outside of factories, from the Lumière brothers to Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Pasolini’s awesome, awful finale, gets an ironic Independence Day screening. Transposing the Marquis de Sade to Fascist Italy, Pasolini creates a Sadean anti-utopia in a sealed Lake Garda villa, where old whores and establishment authorities clinically subject kidnapped youths to horrible abuse. The director’s contradictions have never been more volatile, as he indicts power structures, godless liberation (“We Fascists are the true Anarchists,” one exploiter states), audience participation, and his own libertine libido. Had Pasolini not been murdered a week before Salò‘s release, it’s difficult to imagine how he would’ve followed this self-immolating performance, which retains the power to disturb in the era of the sham-seditious blockbuster. (Rented by undercover cops shaking down a gay bookstore, it prompted a 1994 obscenity case—thrown out—in my hometown of Cincinnati.)

Troubling images of another kind emerge from the great French ethnographer Jean Rouch’s study in colonial pathology, Les Maîtres Fous (1954). Rouch narrates the annual ceremony of the Hauka sect, whose adherents, everyday workers from Ghana’s “Black Babylon,” allow themselves once a year to be possessed by demons, alter egos representative of the Anglo ruling class, as they role-play a parody of life among the elite while frothing at the mouth. 1970’s Eldridge Cleaver finds the Black Panthers’ minister of information trying to move the conversation forward from White Devils, visibly fatigued by his Algerian exile following a shoot-out with the Oakland PD. Director William Klein made some of the worst “radical” pabulum imaginable, but in colluding with Cleaver, he gets a complex and magnetic figure down on film.

The middle-class white runaways of Underground (1976) certainly memorized Cleaver’s rhetoric. Filmmakers Emilie de Antonio, Mary Lampson, and Haskell Wexler powwow with four Weather Underground fugitives in the middle of their decade on the run, prompted by the accidental explosion of their 11th Street townhouse. (The FBI unsuccessfully subpoenaed the three directors for their footage.) Rewatching his younger self, William Ayers reported being embarrassed by the group’s “rigidity and the narcissism.” Well . . .

The classic counterculture political film has its numbing orthodoxies, like anything: Marxist-revolutionist dictums applied to new oppressed classes while earnest tone-deaf folk music oppresses the ears. 1989’s Chameleon Street, by contrast, is the rare party of one. The theme is faking it in America. Writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr. stars as whip-smart “I think therefore I sham” William Street, a real-life black Detroit con artist who reinvented himself more times than, say, Eldridge Cleaver, chasing the almighty dollar by posing as a reporter, convict, doctor, and Frenchman (“Pépé le Mofo”). Chameleon Street is a really funny success story, well-matched to Nathanael West’s A Cool Million (like West, Street fakes his way into the Ivy League), with a tricksterish, appropriative style. Harris tunes his baritone to imitate Orson Welles and Barry White, but he says something that’s entirely his own.

The “Contraband” of this series’ title is, perhaps, a misnomer. You will not be set on with rubber bullets and truncheons while leaving BAM. In fact, God-bless-America in its crudest form gets the closing-night last word, via Sly Stallone’s Rocky IV (1985). The film is comprised almost entirely of Burt Young interacting with a robot butler, skull-rattling punch-outs, and flashback/workout music videos scored to Survivor and John Cafferty, as HGH poster boy Stallone villainizes Soviet champ Ivan Drago’s steroid use. Rocky mumbles for peace, Mikhail Gorbachev slow-claps, and, four years later, the Berlin Wall crumbles. Who says art can’t change the world?