A Picture of Us
X+ by Marylène Negro
“A Picture of You”. Marylène Negro’s works often bring about a face to face, either two solitudes or two creatures so totally different that nothing but their physical position can point to a relation between them. More often, what one sees is a sound or visual representation that the film contemplates, not to understand it but to represent it from its limitlessness, until it provokes a sweet vertigo. For Marylène Negro, the image represents an area of intercession that defuses the potential violence of a meeting, keeping only the qualities of attention, vigor and benevolence, prerequisites to a possible exchange. The image enables apprehension without prehension.
In 2010, with the full-length film X+, Marylène Negro takes up a new dimension of human experience: the collectivity. “A Picture of Us”. What are the aggregating forces that bring forth this drive – brusque or slow, woven from facts, simplifications and resonances that we call, always approximately, collective history? Unendlessly, the cinema records silhouettes, groups, crowds, masses – fleeting passers-by of a period they are going through, tiny extras of a zeitgeist that carries them along. X+ explores the visual and sound forms of presence thanks to which persist, insist or dissolve the argentic traces of these innumerable figures whose existence forms the tissue of humanity and whose mingled gestures – noticed or unnoticed, make up the supposed “collective” substratum of collective history. X+ attains the very principle of figurativity.
On her Time-Line, Marylène Negro superposed ten activist films from a body relegated to the margins of the official history of images, sometimes themselves collective or anonymized.
In chronological order of shooting:
Here at the Water’s Edge – Leo Hurwitz, 1961, 57’ (poetic description of Manhattan by an elder statesman of political cinema)
The Exiles – Kent MacKenzie, 1961, 72’ (a night in the life of an Indian minority in Los Angeles)
The Bus – Haskell Wexler, 1963, 62’ (participants on their way to the Civil Rights March on Washington)
Losing Just the Same – Saul Landau, 1966, 48’ (daily life of a black teenager from West Oakland on his way to prison)
One Step Away – Ed Pincus, 1967, 60’ (California hippies looking for another way of life)
Black Liberation/Silent Revolution – Edouard de Laurot, 1967, 40’ (rigorous and enraged essay made with the Black Panthers)
In the Year of the Pig – Emile de Antonio, 1968, 101’ (fresco on the Vietnam war)
Winter Soldier – Winterfilm, 1972, 96’ (conferences by Vietnam War veterans whose testimony on the atrocities drove them into illegality)
Wattstax – Mel Stuart, 1973, 98’ (concert to commemorate Watts riots in 1965)
Underground – Emile de Antonio, 1976, 87’ (politics of the Weathermen, who went into radical activism and clandestinity)
From this body of work, Marylène Negro has invented a new form of editing that probes depth as well as scope, verticality as well horizontality. She superposed the ten films in their linearity, then sculpted their relations of opacity and transparence so as to bring forth one or several visual and sound images from the volume of the layers thus composed.
What emerges, on one hand, are moments of interlock bordering on magma that suggest an image, an emblem for the perpetual agitation of living creatures coexisting either in time or in space or in people’s memories, never meeting, but partaking of the same energy, a coexistence that no discourse or concept can account for. These are the living, in the effervescent confusion of their presence, incommensurable with images as well as with words and mumbling here with all the strength of their modest traces. Humanity delivered from all concepts, history delivered from all teleology.
What also emerge are new intersections and meetings that form as many hubs in history and ideas about the political dimension of everyday life. For example, the position of a woman seated in the Bus by Haskell Wexler, who is demonstrating for Black rights, matches the position of an Indian woman in The Exiles: of course, the same enemy exploits and imprisons them. The white man followed by Edouard de Laurot on Wall Street can be juxtaposed point by point with the little boys sitting in their black ghetto filmed by Saul Landau. Landau’s film describes a particular and concrete situation of oppression; de Laurot’s sends out a structured call for armed struggle, specifically to defend economically condemned children like the two brothers of Losing Just the Same. Brilliant meetings continually occur in the instantaneous depth of the stratigraphy but also from a distance: thus the Indian woman protagonist of The Exiles, seated in the movies, is looking at the Times Square screen where Vietnam images that de Laurot caught will later be played. Images, double exposures, and joints function exactly like the guns in Black Liberation: they jump from hand to hand, from friend to friend, from motive to motive so as simultaneously to describe situations and grow the seeds of the action. The interweaving becomes a concrete analysis not of a concrete situation but of complex movements of history that occurs through latencies, resonances, deflagrations, involutions, short circuits, lags and synchronies. In this sense, Marylène Negro’s film imagines and thinks collective history in the fullness of its complexities, providing each silhouette its status as historic agent.
X+ was done for the “Anonymous USA” cycle at the Bal (Paris, October-December 2010). It plays its part in the spontaneous movement of films that attempt to re-appropriate and transmit the memory of people’s struggles, a work in progress begun in the USA by Malcolm X, taken up by the Weathermen in their manifesto Prairie Fire (whose cover can be seen in X +), then by Howard Zinn: films such as Profit Motive and The Whispering Wind, by John Gianvito (2007), the Dystopia Files by Mark Tribe (series in progress since 2009), or Film Socialism by Jean-Luc Godard (2010). These major works came out during a dark period of history. The parenthesis opened in January 2003 when the worldwide demonstrations against the start of the second Iraq war were ignored by the Bush administration, proving people’s total powerlessness; it closed in January 2011 with Mohammed Bouazizi’s death and the onset of the Arab Spring, thanks to which people once again have access to the power of action and become drivers of history again. Marylène Negro’s film, conceived and made in the hollow of the last fold of this sinister sequence, vibrating with the popular energy born of anti-colonial battles of liberation harbored in photograms like pollen in the trunks of dead trees, can be likened to “political passion”, a concept that Antonio Gramsci worked out in prison thanks to which he argues that individuals overcome the oppressive determinations they are struggling with. “One speaks of political passion as of an immediate impulse to action which is born on the permanent and organic terrain of economic life but which transcends it, bringing into play feelings and hopes in an incandescent atmosphere in which the very calculation of individual human life obeys laws different from those of individual profit.”1 What is a people? a historical agent? At what point does history start shaking? For the first time, X+ provides the intuition of the irrepressible power of a people fighting, a people identified not from its nation, its generation or its community, but from the types of its commitment in the world.
X+, Marylène Negro, 2010, 69’ and 112’
- 1Antonio Gramsci, Carnets de prison 6-9, tr. M. Aymard and P. Fulchignoni (Gallimard: Paris, 1983), p. 334. Quotation from Carnet 8, written in 1931-32.
Originally published as ‘A Picture of Us. X+ de Marylène Negro’ was originally published in Marylène Negro, Sept Mondes (Poitiers: Anamogues, 2011) and republished in Nicole Brenez, Manifestations. Écrits politiques sur le cinéma et autres arts filmiques (de l’incidence éditeur: Réville, 2019).