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40 Years of Radical Media

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[This is an abridged version of the original document. For information on how to obtain the original version, please contact TWN.]

Newsreel: A Report

Leo Braudy

Film Quarterly, Volume 21, Number 2, Winter 1968-69

...What we demand is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form. Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however progressive they are politically...We must carry on a struggle on two fronts.
- Mao Tse-Tung, quoted at various moments by Kirilov and Véronique in La Chinoise.

Newsreel shows in general a vital and aggressive willingness to experiment with traditional documentary methods in a concerted effort to work “on two fronts” and integrate its political commitment with the movie-making techniques.

The earlier Newsreels are closer to usual documentary form. Except for some close-ups, the camera in Boston Draft Resistance Group only records. It is a witness, not a participant or a commentator.

Later newsreels do not completely drop this more “objective” and traditional approach because the group preserves a sensitivity to the special kind of treatment each subject demands. A comparatively recent film like Meat Cooperative again has a fairly straightforward chronological form, while it describes in a Consumer Reports manner the growth of a Lower East Side community meat cooperative that successfully does away with the bad meat and high prices of the local supermarkets until OEO funds are cut off and it must close. The second section, in which the leaders of the cooperative try to get help from the local congressman to have the funds renewed, is inconclusive and abrupt, like the action itself. But the promise of the cooperative, and its potential as an example, carries the weight of the film. Although Meat Cooperative like Boston Draft Resistance Group is aesthetically traditional, it is politically part of a propaganda of possibilities that stands opposed to what one Newsreel member called “the aesthetically and politically mindless propaganda of the thirties.”

But the more pervasive trend in Newsreel has been films that demand much more from the audience in both aesthetics and political response. These more experimental Newsreel films attempt to achieve a more open-ended political result by aesthetically radicalizing the audience as well. The understanding needed to bring together sound and image mirrors the understanding necessary to translate accurate analysis into appropriate political action.

Talk, as it is embodied in the discussions that swirl around political actions, forms an increasingly important part of Newsreel’s films. The films now in progress concentrate even more on developing a kind of “follow” documentary, a film about the dynamics of different groups as they get into, learn about, and try to deal with the society they live in, to bridge the gap between talk and action. Garbage and Chicago are the two most interesting and most successful attempts I have seen so far to document this process of thought and action and produce a film that has aesthetic form with political finality. Garbage follows a Lower East Side group called “Up-Against-The-Wall-Motherfuckers” on a trip to throw garbage into the central fountain of Lincoln Center as a statement about the cultural garbage Lincoln Center purveys and the mounds of real garbage people are living in because of the New York garbage strike. The soundtrack is full of talk -- jokes, arguments about the project in earlier discussions, commentary during the trip itself, “America the Beautiful” in falsetto, and discussions afterwards, and more talk about later action to relate the existence of Lincoln Center to the problems of the Lower East Side as a community. Garbage was shot by many Newsreel cameramen, and therefore embodies many points of view, in its images as well as in its soundtrack, about the appropriateness of the garbage dump as a reaction to the fact of Lincoln Center. One especially ambiguous shot of a black janitor with a broom watching the exuberant Motherfuckers go by introduces the idea that those in power will never be touched by something as whimsical as this; the only effect will be extra work for the people who have to clean up.

Films like Garbage, Chicago, Boston Draft Resistance Group, and Meat Cooperative have a richness and vitality that repays seeing them several times. Ideally, Newsreel is a community of politically committed film-makers who can progress in artistic ability and political understanding at equal pace. But more important is that many Newsreel films work fruitfully in the terms they have set for themselves. The Newsreel is the words “The Newsreel” flickering violently to the sound of a machine gun -- the cinematic equivalent of Leroi Jones’s line “I want poems that can shoot bullets.”

 

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