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April 25, 2008

"The Last Bolshevik"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Thanks to visitor Ron for pointing out that a wonderful but formerly hard-to-find movie is now available on DVD: Chris Marker's "The Last Bolshevik." FWIW, I'm a fairly serious Chris Marker buff -- back here I recommended a new-ish DVD that includes his movies "Sans Soleil" and "La Jetee" -- and I consider "The Last Bolshevik" to be one of Marker's very best movies. Now that I think about it, I also consider "The Last Bolshevik" to be one of my favorite artworks of the last 20 years.

A rare photo of Chris Marker

Chris Marker (a Frenchman who uses a pseudonym and who is now in his late 80s) is a unique figure in film history. He started out as a traveler, a journalist, a photographer, and a writer. When he turned to movies, he worked as personally and quirkily as he had done earlier, using the film camera as a poet might use a notebook, making notes and sketches, and inhabiting the editing room in a meditative spirit, not building dramatic points but instead taking note of (and bringing out) relationships and qualities.

His movies are generally categorized as documentaries, or maybe "personal essays," and while that's helpful it also doesn't begin to convey how complex, subtle, and poetic they are. They weave together elements of letter-writing, music, fantasy, documentary, journals, and poetry -- they're the film equivalent of a belles-lettres approach to art-making. I don't know of any movies that convey the feeling of what it's like to think and imagine as thoroughly as Marker's movies do.

In their effect the best of them are quite transporting. Like Oliver Sacks' best essays (start here), or like some of the books of (undoubtedly heightened) reportage of Ryszard Kapuscinski (try this one), Marker's movies deliver more of a sense of the marvelous than 99% of fiction does. In fact, his movies are rather like fairy tales for adults, with real life instead of fiction being what's marveled over. If your idea of a hip, adult, or advanced documentary is Erroll Morris or PBS, in other words, prepare to have your head explode. In truth, Marker's movies don't even seem to inhabit the world of movies, let alone documentaries. Instead, they seem to belong to the region of Culture inhabited by the likes of La Rochefoucauld, Baudelaire, Mme. de Lafayette, and Montaigne.

A self-indulgent paragraph that might be best skipped ... So far as my own approach to nonfiction goes, I've taken a lot of inspiration from Chris Marker. Marker creates film-essays -- but they aren't essays in the usual driving-a-single-point-home sense. Instead, they're open, poetic, and exploratory. He works by association and analogy rather than by reason and logic. (For all of Marker's brilliance, when he speaks in interviews he often comes across as insubstantial and even rather silly; he's a poet and a philosopher, in other words, not an academic or a journalist.) In his movies, experiencing the getting-there and the spaces-in-between is always more important than arriving at the goal. I'm naught but a speck of dust by comparison to Chris Marker, of course. But I've always reacted against the imperatives of conventional essay-organizing and journalism in the same way Marker does. My temperament is speculative, imaginative, and musing rather than academic, and my main interest in blogging and in nonfiction writing doesn't have to do with arguing, or opinionating, or with recording facts, but with noticing things -- clouds of associations, mainly -- and doing what I can to translate that process of nonlinear exploration into entertaining, provocative, and linear reading experiences. (Hey, laugh at me if you will, but I have actual reasons for going about writing and blogging as I do.) I saw my first Chris Marker movies in college more than -- gadzooks -- 35 years ago, and I've been learning from him ever since.

OK, end of pretentious self-absorption.

Semi-related: Read more about Chris Marker here. This essay about "The Last Bolshevik" may be a bit out of date, but I do know what the author is talking about. Paul Graham's essay about essay-writing is essential cultural history. Why on earth do schools train students to write "rounded-off" essays about books? Paul Graham explains how a strange and stupid state of affairs that we take too much for granted came about.



posted by Michael at April 25, 2008


That essay on the Last Bolshevik is brilliant. Was it really written in 1993? That seems almost impossible. If so, I wouldn't call it outdated, but rather prescient. The trends it points to have only grown more marked since then. It's one of those pieces that gives me a clearer, more cogent language to express stuff I was already trying to puzzle out, so thanks for that.

Posted by: mq on April 25, 2008 2:23 PM

Yikes! Say it ain't true!

Michael, why does the intellectual community continue to do this? Sentimental, reflective movies and books about the failure of the great dream of the Soviet Union?

Admittedly, I haven't seen the movie. Nor do I want to.

I did read the review linked in your post, and a couple of other reviews.

Do you really believe that the great "fallacy of good intentions" excuses the insanity that was Soviet communism?

I went through this myself, 25 years ago. I have absolutely no excuses because I was reading Solzhenitzyn way back in the early 70s. I lived with Russian students in college and they told me the truth about the Soviet Union, but I refused to get it. Way into the 80s, I was talking about what a backward rube was Prez Reagan, and how Marxism hadn't really been tried because nobody did it the right way. This stupidity is part of how I came to live in Woodstock.

Give me a clue here. When will the leftist/artistic community begin to do penance for the terrible, horrifying sin it committed in supporting and glorifying revolution, Boshevism and Soviet communism? This sin was not provoked by "good intentions."

I've had to deal with the reality of my own moral and spiritual failure in this regard. There is no other way to state this. It's part of the reason why I returned to believing in God. I was tempted by Satan. That's the only explanation for why we fell for this insanity. Evil exists. We fell for it.

Probably, I had a similar experience to yours with the movie "Reds." Yes, it's brilliant in some theatrical, technical ways. And, it's the work of an evil mind.

From time to time, I am drawn into political discussion in Woodstock, but I have to quit almost immediately. Nostalgia for Stalinism and romantic yearning for the return of the Soviet Union will not die here. The reason: The left refuses to admit that the motivation for these doctrines was insanity, hatred, evil, stupidity and murderous greed. And there's always another incredibly clever technician of an artist who authors yet another elegiac work about the great dream of revolution, egaliterianism, the rule of the people, the great dreams of a New World.

Forgive me, this crap drives me half insane. The Soviet Union has been dead for over two decades. The archives have long been open for those who want to know the truth.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 25, 2008 2:33 PM

MQ -- Really pleased you enjoyed. The Paul Graham essay is pretty great -- have you tried that one? Talk about context-setting!

ST -- Learning how to dodge arguments with the doctrinaire lefties is an essential survival skill for an artsy, don't you find? As for the movie, I think you'd find that it's point of view (although not its tone) is actually quite close to yours. How did so many artists align themselves with communism? Medvedkin -- the Soviet director "The Last Bolshevik" is about -- was a talented guy, and people (including Chris Marker) tended to like him personally. And at the outset some Soviet revolutionary art looked pretty good. You can kind of excuse a bit of this on a "young and foolish" basis, and besides, few people knew in advance where communism and modernism were headed. Yet he wound up making propaganda for the murderous Stalin, and he clung to the (modernist-communist) dream of revolution right till the end. How to reconcile the talent, the idealism, the genuine likableness and enthusiasm, with what he in fact wound up doing? And why do so many people still cling to the ideal of revolution in art so long after the Berlin Wall fell? What on earth was in the air throughout the 20th century? How was it that so many artists so thoroughly disgraced themselves, and disgraced their art? And what role in all this did the movies play? Marker spends the whole movie asking questions like these.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 25, 2008 2:48 PM

Any paragraph that starts by calling itself a "self-indulgent paragraph that might be best skipped" is obviously a must-read. I admire your style and, as expressed in the "My temperament... sentence, your approach and self-awareness.

Consider the ring kissed.

Posted by: robert on April 25, 2008 4:42 PM

The real question is: why do so many artists and intellectuals continue to fall for the evil that was and is communism (international socialism) and not fall for the evil that was and is fascism (national socialism)? Both systems inevitably lead to mass murder. So why the blindness to the actuality of one and not the other? I don't know why. Thoughts?

Posted by: ricpic on April 25, 2008 6:37 PM

ricpic: probably because national socialism and fascism are reactionary rather than revolutionary in nature, and have often been able to successfully portray themselves, at least to their followers (and some of their detractors) as defenders of tradition ('Kinder, K├╝che, Kirche', etc.). Since the Left hates tradition, but loves novelty and the "avant-garde", it has a knee-jerk reaction against anything in the least bit suggestive at all of traditionalism (from political conservatism to paleolibertarianism, to national socialism and fascism), and a knee-jerk reaction in favour of anything that presents itself as "forward-thinking", "progressive", etc. (from liberalism, to socialism, to communism).

Posted by: Will S. on April 25, 2008 10:05 PM


The reason is the Holocaust. We are constantly reminded in the media of the Holocaust, but never of the 100 million human beings killed by Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or Che Guevara, etc. What about the 10 million starved to death in the Ukraine?

The blame for this lies with the media.

Posted by: BIOH on April 26, 2008 1:00 AM

why do so many artists and intellectuals continue to fall for the evil that was and is communism

Artists are flatterers by temperament and they have a well-honed instinct for seeking patronage, without which they'd starve.

And over the past century or so, the action (ie., falling crumbs) has been with the media-corporate complex, who in turn are anti-tradition transnationalists.

Posted by: PA on April 26, 2008 6:46 AM

I agree with both PA and BIOH. And, as regards what BIOH said, it's always about THEM, so long as they have influence through ownership and editorial control of a goodly portion of print media, combined with their influence in Hollywood, and their influence on dispensationalist evangelicals.

Posted by: anon on April 26, 2008 10:30 AM

And over the past century or so, the action (ie., falling crumbs) has been with the media-corporate complex, who in turn are anti-tradition transnationalists.


The anti-corporate crusade of the left perplexes me. Doesn't the left know that the executives and HR departments of corporations are diehard multiculturalists and fervent PC leftists?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 26, 2008 10:37 AM

wow, i'll have to check marker out, thanks. i've only see la jettee years but i liked it. sounds awesome. your postings on here got me into bertrand blier a while back and he's one of my favorite directors now so maybe that'll happen again.

Posted by: t. j. on April 26, 2008 11:56 AM

I found La Jetee on youtube at

Posted by: Darby Shaw on April 28, 2008 8:18 PM

Sorry, first one was just a snippet, here's 26 minutes of it

Posted by: Darby Shaw on April 28, 2008 8:19 PM

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