Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 11, 2021

Paris Calligrammes

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:06 pm

Now showing as virtual cinema at the Film Forum in New York, “Paris Calligrammes” is a self-portrait of Ulrike Ottinger, a 78-year old German filmmaker who adopted Paris as her artistic, cultural, political and psychological home. Arriving there at the age of 20, she became a Boswell to her chosen Samuel Johnsons, namely the admixture of Marxist intellectuals, Dadaists, Surrealists, bibliophiles, and outsized personalities that made Paris so irresistible to young, aspiring artists and bohemians. Indeed, replace London with Paris and Johnson’s observation captures her feelings as well: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

The entire film consists of footage Ottinger shot over the years, most of which is in stunning black-and-white and reminiscent of the golden age of La Nouvelle Vague. Much of it depicts the street life of the Left Bank as young Parisians flock to nightclubs featuring African-American émigré jazz musicians or to other nightspots that are counterpart to Greenwich Village in the early 60s.

In 1962, she had access to some of the giants of 20th century radical thinking and art, such as Max Ernst, Marcel Marceau, Paul Célan, Walter Mehring, Hans Arp, Jean Genet, Albert  Camus, and Juliet Greco. If you’ve read Ernest Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast,” a wondrous posthumous memoir by Ernest Hemingway that recounts his bohemian youth in Paris in the 1920s, you’ll see Ottinger’s film as a kindred spirit.

It will come as no surprise that Ottinger is a life-long radical. There are eye-opening scenes of Vietnam antiwar demonstrations, the May-June 1968 events as well as penetrating critiques of France’s imperial legacy. It is astonishing to see Moroccans and other colonized peoples marching in parades celebrating their French identity.

Interspersed throughout the film are excerpts from Ottinger’s earlier films that at least to my eyes seem like the counterpart to the underground film movement in the USA with a particular resonance with a work like Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures”, especially the earliest signs of a “camp” sensibility. Like Smith, Ottinger is gay. After seeing the brief examples of her work in the film, I am motivated to track them down especially in light of how Wikipedia described her artistic mission as having “constituted a one-woman avant-garde opposition to the sulky male melodramas of Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog.”

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