La Chinoise & The Weather Underground

The other day I inadvertently created one of the best double features that I’ve ever seen: First, the fictional narrative La Chinoise (1967) and then, second, the documentary The Weather Underground (2002), based on the revolutionary group of that name.

Silhouetted hands in La Chinoise.

What makes this double features so powerful? We live in an age where violence against human beings in the name of some cause (religious jihad, war on terror, patriotism, personal peace and prosperity, etc.) is accepted by many generally reasonable people. The U.S. government and TV pundits are currently debating whether torture is okay, or whether certain kinds of torture can be called something else to get around legal requirements. Some argue that extreme force, including the killing of innocent people (collateral damage) in order to send a message (to those who would dare to use violence as a means of sending a message), is an acceptable response to terrorist acts – in other words, matching fatal violence with increased levels of the same.

But does violence work? I suppose it depends on what are one’s goals. In general, though I would argue, violence does not incite peace.

La Chinoise plays out the philosophical debates underlying these issues within a somewhat humorous and heavily symbolic world that might be called godardian. La Chinoise is a fictional tale of what underlies potential violent action, and of political idealism amongst the educated children of the bourgeois. La Chinoise is also considered to have presaged (and possibly encouraged) the student protests in Paris that occurred exactly one year after the film’s release.

The Weather Underground, on the other hand, exposes the reality of those actions and their implications by showing what actually played out in the U.S. In other words La Chinoise says “suppose” and The Weather Underground says “regard.”

La Chinoise is a kind of remarkable film. I say kind of remarkable because it is also enigmatic and therefore its remarkableness is still very much open to interpretation and evaluation (but isn’t most Godard?). One asks is Godard serious or making fun? Is the film a polemic or a comedy? Is it meaningful or ultimately empty? I can’t say. Many others have done a far better job than I at exegeting the film. But I can say there is one scene I believe is the centerpiece of the film, at least philosophically. That scene is the discussion on the train between Veronique and Blandine Jeanson (playing himself).

Veronique argues for violence.

In that scene they talk about the value and implications of using terrorism in the service of a cause. Veronique, and the revolutionary cell of which she is a part, is planning on using a bomb to kill some students and teachers at the university in order to jump-start a revolution. She argues that the bomb will convince others of the seriousness of their cause. Jeanson argues that violence will not produce the results she is looking for. In fact, killing others will only cause everyone to turn against her and her political group.

Jeanson argues for non-violence.

From my perspective Veronique seems very naive. However, many people felt similarly in the 1960s and early 1970s. I suppose some still do. What would drive a person to such conclusions as Veronique? The Weather Underground explores just such a question.

Haskell Wexler films the Underground.

The activist group The Weather Underground began as the Weathermen, a radical outgrowth of Students for a Democratic Society. The film The Weather Underground is a history of that group and the times in which it functioned. It is one of the best documentaries I have seen.

Bomb making.

What drove the Weathermen was a desire to change the world. Frustration in the slowness of change, and even the continued deterioration of certain concerns (such as the escalating war against the Vietnamese), gradually led the group down the path toward violent action.

A revolutionary gets nabbed.

Much of the film includes interviews with former members of the group. It is fascinating to hear them describe what choices they made, why they made those choices, and what they think of them now. There is a lot of regret for some of the former members. In a sense the film pulls back the romantic veneer of the 1960s anti-war movement and shows a more realistic complexity. What we get is something that makes La Chinoise appear to be both more profound and more like a cartoon of itself.

2 thoughts on “La Chinoise & The Weather Underground

  1. >I don’t know how many times I’ve watched The Weather Underground — maybe six or seven. And I also don’t know why I find it so endlessly fascinating, except that maybe it’s helped me understand a little bit better why the Iraq war and the Bush years, generally, have led to tensions and even breaks in some of my personal relationships. I’m always moved by the final interviews with Mark Rudd, who of the interviewees expresses the deepest and most articulate ambivalence about his involvement. The line that really gets me is something like, “You have to understand that for nearly a decade I lived in a constant state of horror at what my country was doing.” And, as I recall, the filmmakers end the film a few frames later with an image of American planes firebombing a tiny grass hut village. It’s an impressive film.La Chinoise I’ve only seen once so far, and I was content to just let its images hit me. I need to see it again.

  2. >Darren, I know how you feel. As soon as the film was over I wanted to start it over again. It is one of the few documentaries I’ve seen where I was virtually transfixed the entire time. Thanks for your comments.

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